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A Dangerous Word #2 – The Hermeneutical Circle

In a previous post, I began a conversation regarding reading scripture (The Bible)  and the process of deconstruction. This began for Rochelle and I several years ago through a confluence of personal and professional setbacks. Our inherited hermeneutic could not handle the weight of our experiences or the misguided, though well-intended, words and actions we received from fellow Christ-followers. So, we went on a journey that changed the way we read the Bible. We weren’t trying to read the Bible differently, we were just trying to make sense of the full witness of scripture and what we were experiencing.

It has been and continues to be a painful (at times) and beautiful quest.

The primary reason for the pain is that the pursuit of the God of scripture has often lead us to starkly different conclusions about who God is than the prefabricated views we were fed as children. A friend of mine, who has now come to read the Biblical text differently than he was taught, once said: “I wish my pursuit of Jesus did not put me at odds with the very people who taught me to pursue Jesus in the first place.” He lovingly meant that the process of deconstructing and rebuilding your approach to the Bible is difficult to understand by those who have chosen to ignore or abandon the process of deconstruction. For many in the church deconstruction and reconstruction can causes discord and consternation. Counterintuitively, the deconstructive process actually strengthens, beautifies and animates our faith to greater levels. The process is known as the “hermeneutical circle.”

French philosopher Paul Rocouer described the process like this.

The starting point is the First Naivete:

Here we accept the words and symbols of our text as truth without question. You’ve probably heard, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it…” or something like that. Platitudes like this have an air of faithfulness to them, but ultimately it’s both weak and inconsistent. It’s weak because it’s childish (which is different than childlike); accepting on face value whatever you’re told because an authority told you. It’s also weak because no one – ABSOLUTELY NO ONE – lives their life that way. On the major questions of life we do research, we ask questions, and go beneath the surface. The banality of flippant words concerning scripture – if actually believed and practiced – depicts Christians as people who do more investigation into buying a new car or computer than their Holy Book. When something is important, we probe it. To say we accept the Bible without question may make us sound faithful to scripture, but more accurately it reveals that we don’t care much about our sacred text. In essence we are saying that the Bible is not worth our time, attention and focused effort.

To say, “God said it, etc….” is not only weak, but inconsistent. As I highlighted in the previous post, none of us practice all the commands, injunctions and inferences in the Bible – that is, unless you’re practicing exchanging a Holy Kiss and measuring Christian maturity by speech ethics, as James, the brother of Jesus, does. All this simply means that faithful Bible readers cannot remain in the First Naivete. They cannot, if for no other reason than there is less faithfulness there than we imagine.

The second stage Ricouer proffers is the Critical Phase:

In this phase, the reader begins to question the text and embrace the “hermeneutics of suspicion.” During this phase, the reader questions everything. This is the tough part! Is Genesis 1-12 literal? For that matter are Job and Daniel? How do we justify the differences between archeology and the conquest of Canaan? On that note, how do we feel about God-commanded genocide in order to enter the Promised Land? And what about Documentary Hypothesis Theory and the Synoptic Problem? These questions and many others like them are the reason (1) so many in the church shelter inside the First Naivete, (2) formulate a disdain for science and history, (3) recoil from the world into Christian sub-culture, and hosts of other activities. In this phase, the easiest thing to do is give up and the streets are filled with people who have done just that. But the folks who make it through the critical phase emerge better for it.

The third and final stage for Ricouer is the Second Naivete:

At this stage, the reader does not abandon his or her questions and criticism, but s/he sees the text anew. We accept the Bible – and more importantly, Jesus – as Truth, even through the questions. Here the text isn’t true like the War of 1812 is true, but the text is true because it tells the truth. For instance, in the First Naivete, everything must be literally true because…well, it just has to be. But in the 2nd Naivete, the Bible tells us the truth. The truth about who we are, whose we are and what life is about. If all you get from scripture is a Holy Timeline of Events, you’ve missed the point! The story of the Good Samaritan isn’t true because you can check the police report from the road to Jerusalem from Jericho or hold the check-in slip from the motel; it is true because it tells the truth about who God is and what God calls us to do.

This is the second naivete. And for me, it is a much richer place to be.

NPR, Juan Williams, and Just Plain Dumb

My e-mail inbox lit up last week at the news of NPR‘s firing of columnist and FoxNews contributor, Juan Williams. Interestingly, it was my friends who freely and quickly identify as conservatives who were most upset with Williams’ (who is Fox’s “liberal” voice) dismissal. Ostensibly, Williams was dismissed for these comments he made on a Fox broadcast. NPR claims Williams’ response was bigoted and not in concert with their journalistic integrity. Pushing aside the particulars — both real and imagined — of the political intent of FoxNews, NPR, Juan Williams, me or you; as leaders we have much to learn from the handling of Williams’ dismissal and how poorly NPR managed Williams’ release. There are at least 3 lessons to learn:

1. Man-Up. Williams contends that NPR was “looking for a reason” to fire him.  Suppose he is right. Perhaps NPR didn’t like his connections to FoxNews or perhaps he had long ago lost favor with his bosses. People get fired! Welcome to the real world, Juan! The problem at NPR is not that they disagree with Williams and/or FoxNews, but that their leadership was so weak that they never sat down with Williams — even when they fired him — to talk out the issue(s).

There is a simple Matthew 18.15ff principle here. Talk directly with people. In your organization, if you fail to speak straight-forwardly with people about tension, goals and performance, you will eventually have an NPR moment.

2.  One Real Reason is All You Need. Again, NPR pointed to Williams’ comments regarding Muslim on planes as the reason for his dismissal. But any reasonable person watching the entire clip will see that these comments were preamble to a bigger issue. Regardless of what anyone thinks of Williams, calling him a bigot is hard to prove. For goodness sake, he’s written one of the seminal works on The Civil Rights movement and was visible stirred on election night 2008 when America elected Barack Obama as her 44th President.

I’ve known many people fired from organizations, particularly in the church, where the reasoning never added up. One way leadership handles this is to lay out some flimsy excuse and expect everyone to believe it. And in some cases, lay out an orgy of reasons. Unfortunately, in the church, too many people are too easily appeased, which is why it continues to persist. But for thoughtful people inside and outside the organization these moves make the organization look corrupt and small. Just this morning, NPR’s president apologized for the “handling” of Williams firing. Everyone knows they had no real reason. As a leader, when you fire someone, one real, actual, provable reason is enough.

3. Pump Your Brakes. Williams was fired without a conversation. In leadership this is inexcusable. Why not wait until you can meet one-on-one? Why must it be done today? Right now? When making a staff change in your organization it is a rare case that it has to be made immediately. This allows you to think, pray, seek counsel and then make a decision. If I’ve learned anything in the “church world” it’s that hasty firings are almost always unfair firings.

Again, I could not care less about Juan Williams’ politics; the politics of FoxNews; or the politics of NPR. This fiasco is simply a massive failure of leadership, and unfortunately it happens all the time. Williams isn’t unique and he should be grateful that FoxNews has been there to scoop him up and drop $2M in his lap. There are millions of Americans right now who pray to be so mistreated.

Ditching Your Points #1

In the previous post, I began making the case that preacher’s should ditch their points (or at least the way we usually make them). So if you decide not to deluge your audience with points when you preach, what should you do instead? It’s a good question. First, I must restate the simple fact that scripture does not come step-by-step, point-by-point. The entire canon forms one grand narrative. Scot McKnight’s, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, is an excellent source to help you unearth this truth. Therefore, when you and I decide to abandon the “points-preaching model” and adopt a more narrative form, we are not losing a sacred pedagogical tool; rather we are assuming (and it is an assumption), that teaching like Jesus taught is a better model. As a Christian, I assume that everything Jesus did, He better than anyone else did. Insomuch, Jesus should be imitated whenever possible.

So, you ask, what should we do then after we ditch our pitiful points preaching? My answer, “Do what the text does.”

Here’s how to get started:

Assume the text(s) knows how to tell a story. When preparing your sermon try following the story of the text you’re preaching and sketch it out as one would a cartoon strip. Each move of the sermon should form a picture that tells a story, or at least part of one. The sermon then moves from beginning, middle and end becoming a story itself. Obviously, the various content and genres available in scripture mean that sermons look different from one another. An orienting text such as Proverbs or James is much more hard and fast than Jesus’ explanations of the Kingdom in the gospels. Sermons should reflect the nature of the text being preached. When Jesus says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” the Savior is allowing for imagination, He’s encouraging it. “Thou shalt not kill…” is a different kind of text, birthing a different type of sermon. Therefore, you do what the text does.

Assume relevance. Preachers prostitute the text with points when they think no one will care what the text actually says. As a matter of fact, I recently heard a preacher that I like and respect say, “I want to share 4 points with you. Now, I just made these up…” Really? What he’s actually saying is, “I don’t think this text is relevant to your felt needs, so I’m going to make it relevant. Therefore, I will twist and turn this text into an answer to a question.” I may be naive, but I’m going to assume the text is relevant. Not all texts are relevant at all times and in the same way; that’s a pastoral decision for you to make in the planning process. The idea many write sermons with is that these events happened long ago and life has changed so drastically that I must close the distance between my congregation and the Bible. Unfortunately, this move actually increases the distance and leads listeners to the unfounded belief that scripture is boring and just not for them. Any faithful Bible student knows, however, that Scripture is incredibly present. It just takes reading and faith.

(to be continued…)

Picking Up Lent

This past Sunday I preached about addictions – idols really; those things we allow into our lives believing that they offer life, but ultimately do not. The key text was Isaiah 44. In the text, people take inanimate, lifeless objects like wood and fashion them into gods to be worshipped. Times haven’t changed. We still do this. We make things – money, food, sex, accomplishments, a particular political philosophy, the words of a radio or television personality or cable news station, whatever – our gods. We chuckle at the idea of folks worshipping a piece of wood, but it’s not as funny when we think about the men, women and marriages that have been ruined by people worshipping pornography or sexual immorality.

At any rate, all this talk of addictions and idols reminded me of the importance of the Christian calendar, in general, and our present season of Lent in particular. Lent, as you may know, is the 40-day period before Easter. In short, it is designed to help believers share in Jesus’ suffering and sacrifice – at least that’s the most popularized aspect of the season. But at a deeper level we might want to consider the fact that since we are all idolaters – looking to other things give us life – Lent is perhaps our one chance, our one excuse every year to give ourselves permission to melt our golden calves. Lent is the perfect chance to try giving something up, something that has come to master us.

What I mean is simple: Oftentimes our false gods and idols seem so overwhelming that we surrender the fight thinking that nothing can be done. This is made easier by the fact that we generally enjoy idol worship. If we didn’t we never would have begun in the first place. But Lent sounds like a suggestion. It’s just 40 days. Spring training is longer, for goodness sake. If your god is shopping or over-eating or over-spending or terse, course language then 40 days appears plausible.

Lent is subversive this way. For the last 6 years I’ve participated in Lent, setting aside some crutch I’d come to deepened to deeply on. Each year I’ve learned the same thing: I can live without it! In years past I’ve set aside certain language, words I use about others, red meat and few others that I’m too embarrassed to mention. And every time I learned that those things don’t give life and never could. They were blocks of wood. I learned that not only did I not enjoy them all that much, they were harming me in ways I never noticed or considered. What’s more, for each idol I’ve relinquished, I never returned to using them like I did before. Lent provided me an excuse to try – without feeling like I was trying to climb Mount Everest – and ultimately allowed me to loose them and be free.

So here’s my encouragement to you. If like me, you’re from a non-liturgical tradition that thinks Lent is strange or foreign, just give it a try. This is how we learn; we try things. Though the season is already in full swing, pick up the idol that is eating at you and say, “Until Jesus is raised (Easter), I’m leaving you in darkness.” My bet is that by doing so, you will come to see the light.

A Public Word – Part 2

As we continue to examine preaching and the preaching imagination, let’s turn again to Mark’s announcement in Mark 1: “…after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news (1.14-15 NRSV).” Previously we took a brief look at what it means that Jesus’ proclamation occurred, “after John was arrested,” but the next statement is equally as thought-provoking. It is a statement about location and speech; “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news….”

I note here that Jesus began his teaching in a place of His own choosing, but more importantly, He began His preaching to an audience of His choosing. I have noticed that a great deal of contemporary preaching is aimed at people and populations that are not present in the room. I once had a mentor tell me about a 25-year standing men’s prayer group. Early on the group decided to talk only about themselves. At no time were they permitted to talk extensively about their wives, work or children. The rule: Don’t talk about people who aren’t in the room. Another way of saying this is “take responsibility for you own stuff.” It is a move to end the deflection and obfuscation that all too frequently occurs within groups. While keeping the world outside of church building ever-present and a pressing concern of our worship, I’m arguing that the preaching event should address the people in the room.

Preaching should announce the good news with which the present hearers must deal. Too much preaching talks about “those people,” the people that “aren’t us.”  I recently heard a TV preacher railing against federal, “activist” judges. I immediately wondered: How many federal judges are members in his congregation? In the end, preaching that launches attacks or feigns “concern” for people not in the room is largely useless and oftentimes far more reveals the self-righteousness of the preacher and the perceived “goodness” of the congregants than announcing the good news of Jesus.  Unfortunately, this move contributes to the divisions and distance between those inside the church and those not yet inside; adding to human nature’s “us-versus-them” tendency.

Jesus announces a public word! No person or population is excluded and/or targeted. God’s will for the one is God’s will for all. No “us” and “them.” He is not trying to scandalize “them,” He’s scandalizing us “all.” He’s not offering freedom and hope to “us,” but freedom and hope to “all.” Therefore those within the room, should hear in the proclamation a call to make those outside the room both their destination and ally, rather than the opposition and enemy. The word is for all, entering the world through the ears of those who have already heard the word.

What if modern preaching approached its task as Jesus did, reversing the typical, “us-versus-them” orientation and called the church to deal forthrightly with her call – which is to announce “good news” to the all rather than proclaiming bad news just for the people we don’t like? Nietzsche commented, “the harm the good do is the most harmful harm.” He meant that good people, coming to believe that they possess goodness – by contrast, those who differ must be preternaturally evil – do violence because they do not consider the potential for their own evil. This, to me, is why, preaching must resist polarizing narratives that target and divide those within the ecclesia from those without. We are all, and at all times, in need of “the good news.” That, this Sunday, is what you should preach.

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