When we mishear a song lyric or a statement and replace it with others words that make far more sense to us, it is called a Mondegreen (see last week’s blog for the origin of this expression). Examples abound, but let me offer you just five:
- Instead of hearing, “Baby come back, you can blame it all on me” (from the song, “Baby, Come Back” by Player), some hear “Baby, come back, you can play Monopoly.”
- Instead of hearing, “Taking care of business,” (from the song of the same name by Bachman-Turner Overdrive), some hear “Baking carrot biscuits.”
- Instead of hearing, “Hit me with your best shot” (by Pat Benatar), some hear (or are going to hear from now on), “Hit me with your pet shark.”
- Instead of hearing, “I’ll never be your beast of burden” (Rolling Stones), many have heard, “I’ll never leave your pizza burning” which is a far more loving thing to say.
- And instead of “Big old jet airliner” (Steve Miller Band), many think the words are “Pick out Jed from the line-up.” Poor Jed.
All that to say, we mishear things all the time. For instance, when we say, “The Bible teaches such and such,” we often hear, “This is what the Bible says.” But that is not quite right. What we should hear is, “This is what we believe the Bible is teaching” or “This is what we think the Bible is teaching.” Now, this is not to cast your faith into an abyss of doubt and dread, but to say something quite obvious. We interpret the Bible carefully, prayerfully, intently, meticulously, but we could be wrong. Now, certain things are absolutely certain—Jesus’ life, death, burial, resurrection and ascension are prime examples. But there are a lot of very important theological and biblical topics out there about which serious Christ followers disagree. And this has been the case forever (or at least since the Reformation). For example, ask the reformers what the heart of the gospel is (easy question, right?). For Luther, it was justification by faith. For Calvin, it was the glory of God. For Zwingli, it was the grace of God. Three reformers. Three different answers. Bottom line: Everybody can’t be right. And although we try hard to be right and we work hard to think through every issue carefully, at the end of the day, we must hold everything we say humbly and understand that it is far more important as a Christ follower to live out what we do believe in love than to be right about what we believe.
And what does that mean for us at River’s Edge? It means we must honor the diversity of belief we do have. For example . . .
There are some who disdain the title, “evangelical,” and there are some who wear it as a badge of honor. In some circles, “evangelical” is closely tied to a political party and speaks of ultra-conservative views on just about everything, from immigration to capital punishment and family values. In other circles, evangelicalism speaks of the good news of Jesus, missions, evangelism and a departure from fundamentalism, on one hand, and the liberal church, on the other. It all depends on who is using the word.
There are some in our church who see the Bible clearly prohibiting women from occupying ordained roles. They see Paul’s command in 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man”) as authoritative for all time. There are others who see the many women in the New Testament doing ministry (Junia who was outstanding among the apostles, Priscilla, Phoebe, Euodia and Syntyche and others) and would argue that women, when properly trained, gifted and called, ought to be encouraged to become a deacon, elder or pastor. It all depends on how you interpret the various New Testament texts.
There are some in our church who see capital punishment as wrong. They see Jesus’ commands to forgive and to turn the other cheek as critical in this discussion. There are some who see it as the biblical consequence for taking a life. They see verses like Genesis 9:6 and Exodus 21:12 as mandates to punish those who have taken a life. It all depends on which text you see as the most authoritative to solve this question.
There are some in our church who see certain sins as major sins that speak to the ruin of the church and our country, sins like homosexuality, abortion, and divorce. Others may agree these are sins, but would argue that they are no different from many other sins mentioned the in the New Testament, things like greed, rage, the love of money and slander. Others, given certain restrictions on these issues, may even want to distance themselves from using sin language when discussing some of these topics. It all depends on what we want to accent and why.
There are some in our church who see Genesis 1 as God’s creation of all that there is in six days. Others see these “days” as ages. Others see Genesis 1 as a picture of Israel. Others see this passage as God creating a cosmic temple. Others see Adam and Eve as archetypes. Others believe in theistic evolution. It all depends on how you view parallel ancient near east documents and modern science.
And there are some in our church who are Republicans, and there are some in our church who are Democrats. One family in our church told me of an exchange they had on the ride home from one of our services. In the limn, a side comment was made as a joke about my political affiliation (the limn was about how we as a church family ought not to shoot our wounded, our hurting, or those who are different from us; it had nothing to do with politics). This comment greatly surprised one middle-school student who, on the ride home, asked his or her parents how it could be that I was not a Republican (again, it had been mentioned in the service as an aside and as a joke). One of the parents replied, “He’s from Massachusetts. They don’t know any better up there!” Maybe that is true! Now, I would like to say our political views are the result of how we read and interpret the Bible, but I am also not so naïve to think that background, geography, friends, experiences and a host of other things play into our major decisions. But the key is constantly to check our perspectives against the Bible and to let the Bible read us. Søren Kierkegaard said it best: “When you read God’s Word, you must constantly be saying to yourself, ‘It is talking to me and about me.’” (By the way, I still laugh when I think about, “He’s from Massachusetts. They don’t know any better up there!”).
So, what does all this mean? Four thoughts and then a quote!
First, be gracious when speaking to other people about your views on a particular matter. You just might not realize that the person you are speaking to may not hold your opinion. I think we can all improve on speaking encouragingly to one another especially when we disagree, and incendiary or argumentative or authoritarian language rarely leaves the other person encouraged.
Second, be careful that you don’t label someone. Kierkegaard was right: “Once you label me, you negate me.” People are bigger than their views.
Third, all of these issues center on how we are to interpret the Bible. The fact is, people interpret the Bible differently, even those who go to the same church. That’s because interpreting the Bible is part science, part art, part trial, part error, part wisdom and part listening. If this blog tells me anything, it tells me we need more opportunities to discuss controversial issues together, but only if we can do it graciously, lovingly and humbly. And honestly, if we can’t converse about issues where we disagree vehemently without grace, love and humility, we shouldn’t even try. The price of failure is just too high. However, the price of being unwilling to do so is also dangerous.
Fourth, we need to celebrate our similarities! Yes, we are different in so many ways. In fact, outsiders would probably conclude, as a result of hearing of all these ways that we are different, that we must constantly be at each other’s throats or that we have agreed not to talk about any of these things ever, but that is not true! What unites us is far, far greater than what divides us. We are one in the bond of love because Jesus has made us his people. Therefore, we are to celebrate our similarities and rejoice in God’s grace that, even though we are different, we remain committed to each other in God’s love. And therefore, we say: it is good to have a church family!
Bottom line: Everything depends upon how we understand the Bible. What we need, more than anything else, then, is four things. We need to wrestle with the Bible so that we can understand the wide range of possible interpretations. We need to learn to walk humbly with our conclusions when we make them. We need to treat others with grace when their conclusions differ from ours. And we need to celebrate that which unites us in the family of God. As a perfect example of all four of these points, I offer a great example of a truth that should unite us, even though we come at it from different perspectives. Rachel Held Evans writes: “One of my favorite insights in all the Bible’s wisdom literature comes from Proverbs 27:14: ‘If anyone loudly blesses their neighbor early in the morning, it will be taken as a curse.’ As we say in the Episcopal Church, this is the Word of the Lord.” We may find we differ on all sorts of things in the Bible, but I hope we don’t differ on this one!