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

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:

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.
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.

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.


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

(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.

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.
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

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.

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.

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.