393. language is fuzzy (part 4) – sharks and same-sex marriage

LanguageIs1
RubinVase
In the previous post, I tried to make the point that just because language is fuzzy (since words are like containers that hold multiple meanings), that doesn’t mean that language has no meaning at all.

To illustrate this idea, I used the example of the Rubin vase illusion.

I talked about how people can disagree over whether the faces or the vase is more prominent, but no one can make a credible case for the idea that what we’re looking at is a picture of a rainbow.

I used that example to try to make the case that Christians can disagree over what the Bible has to say about same-sex marriage in the same way that people disagree over which image (the vase or the faces) is more prominent in the faces/vase illusion. At the same time, I understand that for some, saying that the Bible can support something like same-sex marriage is like saying that there’s a rainbow where most people only see a vase and faces.

Point taken.

However, take a look at this image:
Stereogram_Tut_Animated_Shark

Image by: Fred Hsu
(Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 
Some people will say that there’s nothing there but a bunch of moving dots. But people who are familiar with random dot stereograph (aka Magic Eye) images will say that they can see a swimming shark.

Similar to the Rubin vase, both images are there, but unlike the faces/vase illusion, the swimming shark in the stereograph isn’t as readily apparent. It takes a bit of training and coaching to get someone who’s never seen such an image to see the shark.1

In this case, it’s easy to empathize with someone who says, “that’s an image of moving dots and that’s it. There’s no other way to see that image and anyone who sees a swimming shark is just flat out wrong.” And we can understand where they’re coming from because we know that it takes a bit of work to see the shark.
SameSex2
In the previous two posts, I used the fictional example of Jane – a Christian in a long-term, married relationship to Janet.

For some Christians, the Bible is clear on the matter: it’s sinful for Jane to exercise the full range of her sexuality as a lesbian in her relationship with Janet, whether she’s married or not. I actually used to feel this way about this issue and the Bible, myself. However, after doing a lot of prayerful thinking, reading, and study, I’ve arrived at a place where I believe that the Bible does fully support and affirm Christian LGBT sisters and brothers like Jane and Janet – all of them, including their sexuality.

And I’ll admit that moving from one position to the other was a long, fraught process because, like the stereograph image, I didn’t think there was a shark there – I didn’t think the Bible could be read in a way that supported same-sex marriage. But eventually I began to see. And now it’s as clear and easy to for me to see as the shark. But it was a long process and so I completely understand why it is that other Christians have a hard time seeing the issue the way I (and other open and affirming Christians) do.2

Now if you want to read a bit more about how I came to the position I currently hold regarding the Bible and same-sex marriage, you can read this post, but I’m not going to explain my shift in position here because that’s not what this series of posts is about.

And I’ll say more about what I’ve been trying to get at through out these posts in the next installment.

BONUS:
If you like stereogram images, check out this music video!


1 If you can’t see the shark, try the techniques on this site (warning, fugly website): http://www.vision3d.com/3views.html.

2 In the case of the stereograph shark image, the shark image is there – it was purposely embedded there by the person who made the image. In the case of the Bible and same-sex marriage, I don’t think the matter is as clear. The question of whether God really meant for people to be able to read the Bible in a way that supports same-sex marriage is one that’s still up for debate, but the point I’m hoping to make is that it is up for debate – it’s not a settled matter yet and so the church should, at the very least, make a safe place to have this discussion rather than saying that the case is clear and closed. More on this in my next post.

392. language is fuzzy (part 3) – faces and vases and rainbows

In the first post, I talked about how words and language are fuzzy and in need of interpretation. In the second post, I talked about how words are like boxes that contain a variety of meanings. To illustrate this last point, I used an example.

Take a look at this sentence:

Jane is a Christian

Now at first, Christians are happy about that because when it comes to Christians and Christianity, the more the merrier.
SameSex2
But then if we add:

Jane is a lesbian in a loving, longterm, marriage with Janet,

then all of a sudden some Christians become very uncomfortable because they believe that a married lesbian does not belong in the Christian box. And these Christians feel this way because they believe that the Bible makes clear who is and isn’t a Christian.

However, when we consider that the Bible is full of words and if it’s true that words are, to some degree or another, fuzzy (they contain multiple meanings), then as I see it, I think we need to be pretty cautious about how certain we are about any particular interpretation of the Bible. In other words, I don’t think it’s possible to be absolutely certain about one stance or the other regarding the state of Jane (or anyone’s) salvation.1

Now I realize that, taken to its logical extreme, one might ask, “well does that mean that anything and everything can be considered Christian? If language is as fuzzy as you claim then is there any meaning at all in the Bible?”

Thankfully, we don’t live in the world of logical extremes. Let’s look at this another way.

There’s a popular optical illusion called the Rubin vase. At first, you might look and see a vase. Blink and then you see two faces. Because of the nature of the illusion, it’s impossible to state what’s depicted in the picture – a vase or two faces. However, one can be certain that it’s not a picture of a rainbow.
RubinVase
Now back to the question, “If language is as fuzzy as you claim then is there any meaning at all in the Bible?”

The point I’m wanting to make is that it’s entirely possible for different people to read the Bible in vastly different ways just as people can see different things in the Rubin vase. Both images are there and people can disagree on which image is more prominent, but no one can say that it’s a picture of a rainbow. In the same way, sincere, Bible-loving Christians can read the same Bible and come away with different conclusions about what the Bible says about homosexuality, but acknowledging that doesn’t mean that there’s no meaning at all in the Bible or that we can make the Bible say anything we want it to say.

One might object here, “okay, I get that Christians can disagree about some things that the Bible says, but the Bible is really clear about the issue of homosexuality and so it’s like you are saying that there’s a rainbow where others see faces and a vase.”

And I’ll address that point in my next post.


1 Now let me be clear here. Even though I fully support Jane and Janet and affirm their Christianity, I don’t believe that my position is the one, correct, biblical stance on the matter that the whole church needs to agree on. At the same time I understand that as a straight, cisgendered male, it’s far too easy for me to hold this position. Personally, I wish the whole of the church would adopt my position on this issue, but at the same time, I believe that this is a complex hermeneutical issue and that good, loving, committed lovers and followers of Jesus (some LGBT persons among them) have settled on different positions than I and I want to respect that.

391. language is fuzzy (part 2) – cats and Christian boxes

LanguageIs1
(Click here for part 1.)

In my last post, I talked about the imprecise nature of language – how words and phrases have a built-in sort of fuzziness to them. I started with a story about a high school trip to DC and how I got left at the Air and Space Museum by mistake. At first I didn’t panic because I knew we were staying at the Days Inn and I thought that there was just one of these in the area. However, when I asked someone for the number to the Days Inn in DC, I learned that there were something like eight or nine of them. And that’s when I started to panic.

I ended that last post saying that “I see that same sort of panic and anxiety in the evangelical church today (especially on the fundamentalist end) and I think a lot of it is rooted in the same sort of Days Inn disconnect that I felt in DC.”

Let me put it this way. Think of the phrase “Days Inn in DC” as a box.1 I thought there was only one thing in the box (one Days Inn) but when I learned that there were many things in there, I panicked because I learned that the situation I found myself in was more complicated than I thought.

Basically, all words and phrases are boxes that hold multiple meanings.

And language is fuzzy because of this boxy/container nature of words.

Let’s try a couple more examples. Take a look at this sentence:

The cat sat on a mat.

The words “cat” and “mat” are both boxes that hold a number of different kinds of cats and mats. However, that’s a trivial example so we don’t worry about the fact that we can’t know for sure what specific kind of cat/mat that sentence is referring to.
GrumpyCat-2meme

Photo credit: Grumpy Cats

 
Now take a look at this sentence:

Jane is a Christian.

Most Christians would be pleased by that sentence because when it comes to Christianity, the general sentiment is: the more the merrier. But what happens when we start to get more specific about the kind of Christian that Jane is.

Jane is a lesbian in a loving, longterm, marriage with Janet who is also a Christian.

At this point, some Christians start to freak out the same way I did back in DC.
SameSex2
Because Jane is a lesbian, they believe that she doesn’t fit into the Christian box. Christians who feel this way tend to believe that only certain things can go into the Christian box and that certain things are excluded. More importantly, they believe they know for certain which things belong and which don’t, and for them, a lesbian just doesn’t belong.

They base this certainty on their reading of the Bible, but here’s the thing. If words are fuzzy, and if the Bible is full of words (over 800,000 depending on how you count them) then can we really know for certain which things belong and don’t belong in the Christian box based on how we read the Bible?

Now one might object here, “well does that mean that anything and everything can be considered Christian? If language is as fuzzy as you claim then is there any meaning at all in the Bible?”

And that’s a great question which I’ll address in my next post. Stay tuned!


1 I’m borrowing this metaphor from this podcast. If you’re looking for a more rigorous take on the problem of language and the evangelical church, I highly recommend you listen to the podcast and/or read Peter Blum’s book, For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought.

390. language is fuzzy (part 1) – panic in DC

LanguageIs1
Let me begin with a story.

When I was in the 8th grade, I got to go on a week long class trip to Washington DC. On one of the stops, we got to see the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. We were told to meet back at a certain spot at a certain time to get on the bus back the hotel. Introvert that I am, I spent a lot of time wandering around by myself and I had a ball. But when I went to the designated spot at the designated time, no one was there – no friends, no teachers, no bus. I quickly realized that I had heard the time wrong and that the bus had left without me.
AirAndSpace

Photo by: Chris Devers

 
I tried not to panic. I knew we were staying at the Days Inn and so I figured I’d just ask someone for the phone number, get in touch with one of the teachers, and they’d send someone out to get me.

Being from Honolulu where we don’t have Days Inns, I thought that there would be just one Inn in the DC area, and so I figured if I asked someone for their number, I’d get a simple, straightforward answer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t so simple. When I asked a customer service person for the number of the DC Days Inn, they asked, “which one?” And that’s when I learned that there were something like eight or nine Days Inn in the area.

And that’s when I started to panic.

I share that story because it illustrates something about how language works. Sometimes we think a particular word or phrase (“Days Inn in DC”) points to just one thing when in fact, it points to many things. In fact, through the course of this series, I’m going to argue that language always works this way because:

Language, it turns out, is fuzzy.

Sometimes the fuzziness of language isn’t a problem.

For example, let’s say you get a text message from your partner or roommate that reads “on your way home, can you stop by the store and pick up a dozen eggs?” you know it doesn’t matter which store you go to or what particular brand of eggs you pick up, as long as you get home with a dozen eggs.

Sometimes, the fuzziness of language can be a HUGE problem.

When your mechanic is replacing the brake pads on your car, you’d better hope that they’re not just phoning their supplier and saying, “on your way here, can you stop by the warehouse and pick up a few brake pads?” because, unlike eggs, it matters a great deal what kind of brake pads they get.
SONY DSC

Photo by: Morten Schwend

 
But even here, there’s wiggle room between what the mechanic asks for and what they can get. There are probably a number of different manufacturers who supply that part and each manufacturer might offer different performance/price options. Thus, choices still need to be made – out of the available options, which is the one that best fits the customer’s needs/budget?

This reveals something profound about language and words and how we use them:

Words have different meanings and thus are inherently in need of interpretation.

Now remember the panic I felt when I learned that there were a number of Days Inns in the DC area? I felt that because I expected a simple answer (one Days Inn) but received a complex one instead (many Inns). And then I felt lost and alone in a huge, unfamiliar world. And so I panicked.

I see that same sort of panic and anxiety in the evangelical church today (especially on the fundamentalist end) and I think a lot of it is rooted in the same sort of Days Inn disconnect that I felt in DC.

And I’ll have a lot more to say about that in my next post.

389. why would anyone ever want to be a Christian when we treat one another this way?

[PREFACE]

I know I haven’t been putting anything up lately, my last post is over two months old. Sorry about that.

Thing is, I have been writing. A lot. Just not here.

If you get sick of reading through all of the screen grabs (and I don’t blame you), feel free to scroll down to the YouTube video of the round flamingos. That’s where I start sharing my thoughts about Christianity and love and the state of the church today.

(It feels good to be writing again. Thanks for reading.)

[END PREFACE]

TRIGGER WARNING: homophobic speech, extreme Christian intolerance

I got added to a group on facebook (and no, I won’t link to or name it here). I was told that it was supposed to be a place where Christians could discuss difficult topics in an open, friendly manner. I introduced myself briefly then waited a day or so to watch how the group operated. It looked like what I had been told – a place where people posted questions and then others in the group responded. Nice.

And then I put up a question of my own along with my stance on the matter:

1

The initial responses came pretty quickly (see the time stamps).

2
*NOTE – I’m using pseudonyms (a la Tarantino’s Resevoir Dogs) to protect the privacy of the other commenters.
Also, click on the images to see screen grabs of the whole comment thread (caution, the image files are pretty big).



Now at this point, these are all things I’d heard before. At the end of his comment, Mr. White did say “There is no such thing as a LGBT brother and sister…” but I chose to ignore that. In my response, I tried to emphasize the importance of taking social context into account, but the others wanted to take the biblical text at face value.

And then things started getting weird.

3
(Edited for clarity. Click on image to see the full context.)



Turns out, Mr. White not only believes that there’s no such thing as an LGBT Christian, there’s also no such thing as a lefty progressive Christian. On top of that, the mere fact that I self identified as a progressive causes White to question my Christology!

In response, I wrote:

4

After a number of other interchanges where I had to defend my position, I decided it might be time to turn the tables.

5

And this is the answer I got:

6

Mr. Orange actually believes that “True Christians are not tolerant… social justice is evil, leftism is the damnation of the human race… liberalism is a mental illness that leads to deafness, blindness, eventually death.” And notice Mr. White’s high-fiving approval.

Awesome indeed.

Up until this point, I tried my best to be diplomatic and reasoned but I was running out of patience and so in return, I wrote:

7

Note the time stamp. I sent that at 3:51am, Thanksgiving morning. I went to bed dreaming of turkey and stuffing and pie.

A few hours later, I woke up to see…

8

Amid the vitriol and the random bit about Obamacare, I actually saw an opportunity to engage in dialogue over one of the foundational differences between liberal and conservative Christians – the issue of how we understand truth.

Conservatives tend to believe that truth is (1) absolute, (2) unchanging, and that (3) we can be certain about our understanding of that truth.

Me? I actually agree with the first two – I do believe that truth is absolute and unchanging.

It’s on the third point where I disagree. We, as finite human beings, can never grasp the totality of truth. Our knowledge of truth is always contextual and contingent. As Paul puts it, “we know only in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9).

The difficulty we have in discussing issues like same-sex marriage has to do with this difference in how we understand truth. Because of this, I thought it might be a good idea to move the discussion thread in that direction.

And so I asked:

9

And then this comment dropped.

10

*SIGH*

One more screen grab before I (finally) get to what I want to say about all of this.

11

(Edited for clarity. Click on image to see the full context.)



Check the time stamp: December 5th. This fb conversation went on for over a week and at this point, we’re about 200 comments deep. I’d been pretty active through it all and while there were a few (very few) encouraging moments for me (for example, Mr. Blue is someone I know personally and while he disagrees with my take on the Bible and homosexuality, he nevertheless came to my defense more on more than one occasion), overall it was pretty brutal.

[INTERMISSION]

If you read through all of that, you’re probably needing a break about now. So here’s a video with round flamingos to help cleanse the mind.

You’re welcome.

[END INTERMISSION]

I titled this post “why would anyone ever want to be a Christian when we treat one another this way?” because it’s a question I asked myself over and over again while working that fb thread.

And I think the answer has to be, “if this is how we treat one another then they shouldn’t want to be a Christian.”

And that’s a shame.

Because I believe the world is longing for a place where different people can come together with their differences and still love one another.

And the church is supposed to be just that sort of place but far too often, it’s not.

And that’s a shame.

It’ll probably take a few more posts for me to unpack my thoughts on all that went down, but I’ll close by saying this.

Jesus taught us to love our enemies. Martin Luther King Jr. expanded on this idea in a stunning sermon where he said, “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” and “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

Some people criticize the liberal end of the church for being big on love but soft on sin, as if love is just some fluffy, easy, ephemeral thing.

No.

Love is costly. It’s brutal. Love is fucking hard work.

And it’s supposed to be Christians’ defining feature:

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

Let it be, Lord. Let it be.

[POSTSCRIPT]

If for some insane reason you want to read through the entire facebook comment thread, here are links to all the screen grabs:

(And yes, all the name/profile pic substitutions were done by hand in photoshop.)

388. the spiritual lottery (part 2)

lotteryWin

Photo by: John Carleton

A Brief Review

In the last post, I talked about how when it came to dating, the church taught people that if (subtext: “and only if”) they kept themselves pure then God would bless them with an awesome marriage. Unfortunately,very few relationships happened the way they described it. The stories they shared, the stories that got air time? Those were exceptions that were carefully selected in order to support the narrative they were preaching.

The fact of the matter is:

A 2005 survey of 12,000 adolescents found that those who had pledged to remain abstinent until marriage were more likely have oral and anal sex than other teens, less likely to use condoms, and just as likely to contract sexually transmitted diseases as their unapologetically non-abstinent peers. The study found that 88 percent of those who pledged abstinence admitted to failing to keep their pledge.1

We never got to hear the stories of couples who had sex before they were married and still wound up with thriving, healthy relationships. On the flip side, we never got to hear stories (like mine) of people who had remained pure and ended up losing desire altogether. In fact, for some couples, even after getting married, they still found sex to be problematic because of the desire-denying teachings of purity culture.

And when it came to tithing, we were taught that if we tithed then God would bless.

But we never got to hear the stories of people who stepped out in faith, tithed when they couldn’t afford to, and then wound up going into debt. Those stories never made it into sermon illustrations.

QuestionManCredit

[Don't] Ask [Difficult] Questions

It took me a long time to see this pattern, primarily because questioning the obedience/faith/reward narrative meant questioning (their interpretation of) the Bible which meant questioning (their understanding of) God which meant I was a bad Christian (in their eyes). And really, there was no room to question because the only stories that got shared were ones that fit the narrative – those people who did A, B, and C and as a result saw God do X, Y, and Z. We never heard the stories of people who did A, B, and C but didn’t see God doing anything so they kept pressing on to do D, E, and F. And when they talked to their pastor about why God wasn’t showing up, maybe they were encouraged to try G, H, and I (or to go back to A, B, and C only with more gusto and sincerity).

In short, we never heard the stories of people for whom X, Y, and Z never happened – the stories of people (like me) who did all the right things in regards to dating (not lusting, not dating, etc.) and still wound up single, or people who faithfully tithed even when they couldn’t afford to and then wound up bankrupt (financially and spiritually).

And we probably never heard these stories because the people who were living them eventually stopped going to church. Or at best, they never got the chance to share.

The Lottery Cycle

And here’s the most insidious bit. The pastors who preached this formulaic version of Christianity? Many times they were also people for whom the formula had worked, Sometimes the fact that God came through for them was a large part of the reason they chose to become pastors – so they could show people how awesome (their view/understanding of) God was.

Because if it had worked for them so well, why wouldn’t they want to help others to experience the same?

And then this creates an unfortunate cycle. The pastor lives a certain way and begins to see all the good things in their life as a result of this faithful living. And so they teach their congregation that if they will only live the same way that God will bless them as well. And then when they hear congregant stories that fit this pattern, they get to share their testimony or get mentioned in sermon illustrations.

And the people who keep waiting for the blessings keep wondering what’s wrong. They think maybe they’re wrong or that God doesn’t love them or that the church is full of shit. And so they leave. And then back at church, maybe the pastor points to these people who don’t attend anymore as examples of people who were unfaithful and who would never see blessings.

And the fortunate ones nod their heads in agreement while the (still) waiting ones cower in fear, shame, and expectation.

These people? The ones who stay, who remain faithful to the teachings and yet continue to await blessings? I was one of them for far too long. And all these years later, I’ve met with many friends who were also faithful and waiting. Many of them don’t go to church anymore. Some of them don’t believe in God anymore – and why should they? Can you blame them?

Me? To be honest, I think I’d say that I still believe in God, but barely.

And why do I believe? And what sort of God do I believe in, if not this transactional God-machine/lotery?

I’ll get to that in the next post.

[POSTSCRIPT]

I’d love to hear your thoughts. If you resonate with any of this, I’d love to hear your story in the comments section below.

lotteryticketbook

Photo by: mendolus shank

387. the spiritual lottery (part 1) – the transaction

register1

Photo by: Marcin Wichary

Transaction Theology

For a long time, I was confused about something. The pastors and ministers in my life would tell these stories about how because they lived live a certain way, God brought blessings into their lives – like maybe they left a lucrative job to plant a church and at first they were worried but now they’re super stoked about it. And then they would share stories from other people’s lives about how something similar thing happened. These examples were supposed to illustrate a truth from the Bible – that God will make X, Y, and Z happen when Christians do A, B, and C.

Let me give you a concrete example of this. In my earlier years in church, I got a lot of this sort of formulaic theology in regards to dating. I once described their teaching this way:

IF you set aside your filthy, carnal urges; IF you worry less about finding the right person and worry more about being the right person; IF you spend diligent, consistent, considerable time in prayer and study of God’s word THEN (and only then) God will bring an amazing woman into your life. Just like that. Happily ever after.

Of course that sounds ridiculous now, but here’s the thing. At the time, the people who were teaching me this had lived what they preached. They had lived sexually pure lives, they focused on being the right person, and they devoted considerable time to prayer and Bible study. And then, as they put it, God brought someone amazing into their life.

Back then, I was a scrawny, geeky kid who had no idea how to date. I was fascinated by women and desperately wanted a relationship but I had no idea how to approach or talk to them, let alone ask them out. And so here were these Christian leaders talking about how they (and other Christians that they spoke about) had met their significant others and so I took note and believed the same would happen in my own life.

prosperity2a

Tithing and Transactions

Dating is just one example of this selective way of talking about the Christian life. Another common example is tithing. Often, in sermons that talked about tithing, I’d hear the idea that according to Malachi 3:10, God seems to be saying, “test me on this – if you tithe, I will bless you.” See how that works? If you do this thing (tithe) then God will do this other thing (bless). It gets preached as a transaction and it’s supposed to be bulletproof, a sure thing, quid pro quo.

Whenever I heard these sermons, the preacher would go on to share miraculous stories about how people in the congregation had decided to begin tithing to the church at a time when they couldn’t afford to do so. Their story would often go something like, “we looked at our finances and knew that we couldn’t afford to tithe because there just wasn’t enough room in our budget. But we decided to step out in faith anyway and give, knowing that at the end of the month, we wouldn’t have enough to pay all of our bills. But then the end of the month came and some how, we ended up with a surplus!” Sometimes this surplus came in the form of a rebate check they had forgotten about or a refund from a utility that had over billed them or sometimes just from another congregant (“God told me that you needed this money”). So the message was, everyone needs to tithe because when you do, God blesses you. Always. And the proof of this was in the personal testimonies they shared.

Dating and tithing are just two examples, but this sort of message was pretty common. If you do A, B, and C then God will do X, Y, and Z.

Unfortunately, these were all another example of false church narratives (or at best, highly selective church narratives). The truth of the matter was far more complicated.

The God Machine

Let me close by saying a bit about the theology underlying this message. Whether they mean to or not (they probably don’t), messages like this paint God out to be nothing more than a machine – one that gives out based on what you put in. Seen from the other end, it’s a machine where if you don’t put in, you won’t get out.

But here’s the thing. God really does seem to come through for some people – they do receive the blessings they prayed/worked/gave for. However, for others, the hoped for blessing never appears, and this can be devastating. This formulaic theology can paint God as a cosmic lottery. People plug in various inputs (more purity, more tithing, more prayer, more Bible study, etc.) and hope for the promised blessing. And the bigger the buy in, the bigger the hoped for pay off. And when the church keeps putting forward stories from people who “won,” it perpetuates the belief that the “losers” need to just keep being faithful, keep doing their part.

And that can lead to tremendous disappointment and harm.

…and I’ll get to that bit in the next post

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