A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Friday, August 13, 2010

Oversimplifying the Christian Faith & Life in General

One of the most difficult challenges facing a Christian and the church is the constant temptation to oversimply the Christian faith and life in general. The knee-jerk reaction for a lot of us is to fall back on that old and familiar line, "The bible says it. I believe it. And that settles it!"

That's all well and good IF things were that simple.

But the bible doesn't read like an encyclopedia or a "how to" book that we can buy off the shelves at a local Barnes & Noble. The bible is mostly a narrative reading of 66 books from a variety of authors writing from a variety of historical periods and situations. Instead of respecting the bible's preference to take the narrative approach rather than the enclyopedic/dictionary approach, we too often try to rearrange the bible in a way that will give us concise and clear cut answers (two paragraphs or less!) for complex questions and issues.

Here are some reasons why I believe we struggle with this temptation to want to oversimplify the interpretations of scriptures:

1) Someone from our past (a family member, friend, former pastor, etc.) taught us a certain interpretation of the bible or what our opinion should be regarding a social issue, and without ever taking the time to critique that interpretation, we have accepted it without qualification.

2) We sometimes confuse patriotism with the Christian faith forgetting that the Old Testament prophets were willing to speak against the popular patriotism of their day if it meant that people were neglecting the poor or trusting in military might rather than trusting in God alone.

3) A false separation of the Christian faith from education/science. Sometimes we forget that the bible doesn't necessarily address the same questions that are posed by science or philosophies and whenever there are apparent discrepancies between the two, we set up a false separation and again settle for simplistic answers. A perfect example of this is the present day debate on how old the earth is.

4) Christians are not immune from laziness and so instead of taking the time to read and be informed on how the church has addressed an issue over the centuries or being aware of the historical context of a particular passage of scripture or how our particular denominational or cultural context have influenced us, we settle instead for an answer that makes most sense to us from a surface level. This is particularly difficult for us today since we live in a society which prides itself on being individualistic. Over the centuries, the church has learned that the best way to interpret the scriptures is by having Christians come together in prayer and study. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism called this "holy conferencing." Christianity is a communal faith, but too often we have privatized it.

5) And let's not forget what is perhaps the most difficult challenge in oversimplifying the Christian faith. We don't respond favorably when we are challenged about our beliefs and our faith and we certainly don't like it when we realize that our perspective on an issue has been off the mark.

But thankfully, the bible itself has a way of helping us to not fall into oversimplification by offering us the challenge of the prophets and of Jesus himself. Think of how often the twelve disciples who thought they had everything figured out would become disappointed when Jesus would say or do something that challenged their worldview, perspectives, and their understandings of scripture.

Jesus continues to challenge us today through our careful reading of the scriptures with an open mind, intense and consistent prayer, and a sense of humility that we don't have all the answers.

Recognizing the temptation and the difficulty to read scripture with this humble approach, this prayer has often been used by Christians and by churches prior to the reading and study of scripture.

Prayer for Illumination (In Unison)
Lord, open our hearts and minds by the power of your Holy Spirit, that as the scriptures are read and your Word is proclaimed, we may hear with joy what you say to us today. Amen.

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