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Friday, November 25, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: E-dification

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

In case you’ve never seen it before, TL;DR is internet shorthand for “too long, didn’t read”. Its existence and very common usage online points to a problem for Christians seeking to communicate the truth of God to others through technology, which is that we are often working with a very short window of attention.

Tom: There is little point in us bemoaning reduced attention spans, Immanuel Can: they are a reality among millennials, and if we want to speak for God in the current environment, we’re going to have to learn to deal.

Making It Practical

So let’s say you’ve come across Leo online. You’ve watched Leo’s interactions in the comments to Christian blogs long enough to know he’s a young believer who has learned next to nothing, but like many immature Christians is given to being assertive and dogmatic about things he has barely considered. Still, you think he’s probably the real deal, and you’d like to help.

Today, Leo has posted this:
“Paul’s personal opinions don’t trump Jehovah.”
The so-called “personal opinion” Leo refers to is this verse:
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
What I’d like to consider together is this:
  1. What are Leo’s problems?
  2. What’s the most important one?
  3. What’s your strategy for tackling it?
  4. How would you keep your response brief enough for Leo to actually read it and benefit from it?
Providing a Little Context

Immanuel Can: Interesting. Now, just how does Leo want to apply that verse? What “problem” does he think it answers for him? Is it gender issues, hierarchy, servitude ...

Tom: He was arguing with a Catholic globalist who claimed “all one” applied to mass immigration. The Catholic’s position was “Everyone else all over the world has just as much right to live in the U.S. as its current citizens because the apostle Paul says we’re ‘all one’ anyway”. So Leo is replying that Jehovah’s instructions to the nation of Israel trump Paul’s instructions to the Galatians.

Leo is on the right side of this particular argument, I think, though for the wrong reasons. But my point is that his underlying assumptions about scripture are much more destructive in the long term than any single misinterpretation his Catholic opponent might cling to.

Who Supersedes Whom?

IC: Ah. Glad I asked. Okay, his problem is that he’s using the verse in a sort of “universal” way, to suggest that any distinctions of any kind are simply out-of-court if the people involved are “Christians”, correct?

Tom: That’s what the Catholic is doing, yes. What our friend Leo is arguing is that the verse the Catholic is using to support globalism cannot apply because it’s only Paul’s personal opinion and contradicts the nationalistic tone of the Old Testament, which, for Leo, is “what God REALLY said”.

IC: I see. So we have two errors: on the one hand, a Catholic apologist who is saying that Paul supersedes the OT, and our friend Leo, who thinks the “Jehovah” of the OT would say something different from Paul. Have I got it right, now? And your concern is with Leo, specifically, how to help his case against the other apologist, while helping him to correct his idea that God and Paul would contradict?

Tom: Right, but the Catholic has now moved on, so we don’t care about him. And I’m not the least bit concerned with helping Leo win an argument. Leo is around all the time. I see him commenting every day. So what I’m looking to do is to understand what’s wrong with Leo’s thinking so I can help him understand scripture better than he does now. And because of the limitations of the online environment we’re in, I’m looking to address only his worst interpretative faux pas, and to do it in the most succinct and clear way.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

I see at least three things about Leo’s thinking that will consistently confuse him as he reads the Bible. I’m curious whether you’d identify the same problems.

IC: Well, let me try:
  1. He doesn’t understand inspiration;
  2. He has no single, logical way of viewing the whole Bible; and
  3. He’s letting his opinions dictate his reading.
Am I close to what you think?

Tom: Close enough. I figured:
  1. He doesn’t understand what “scripture” means (which amounts to the same thing as your first point);
  2. He hasn’t yet noticed that different parts of scripture are addressed to different people (which is essentially your second point); and
  3. He does not interpret contextually (he’s found one verse where Paul says he is expressing an opinion and has erroneously concluded that applies to everything Paul ever wrote).
Which of these would you feel it’s most crucial to get Leo thinking about?

Attacking the Biggest Problem First

IC: If I have to pick, though I think they all matter, I’d take this: he needs a consistent hermeneutic (or theory of interpreting, if that’s clearer). Leo may be quite sincere, and I’m going to assume he is; but if a person does not know how to listen to the Lord, there’s no chance for him to understand what he’s hearing. Consequently, his sincere attempts at obedience will still be misguided.

Would you pick the same?

Tom: I think I’d have to go with inspiration. A theory of interpretation is very important, but the fact that the entire Bible is God-breathed seems to me to be the foundation on which all other knowledge about the Bible can be built up gradually. Or to put it another way, if you believe all you’re reading is ancient wisdom literature, myths or unsubstantiated history, how you interpret matters considerably less. If it’s just intellectual curiosity about what it means, it really doesn’t matter what conclusions you come to.

I’m not sure I’d have any real motive to learn how to listen to scripture if I didn’t first believe it’s THE message from God to man.

IC: Hmm … good point. You might be right; but even after believing in a general way that the Bible is “God’s word”, it won’t do you much good if you don’t know how to read it coherently, will it?

Inspiration and Interpretation

Tom: Agreed. How about you take a poke at Leo over interpretation, and I’ll have a go at getting him thinking about inspiration? Keeping the limitations of the medium in mind (as we’d probably never meet him offline), how might you go about engaging Leo on his hermeneutic?

IC: Maybe you’d better go. After all, if he’s not convinced of inspiration, I can’t do my work … important as it may be.

Tom: Well, he seems to be selectively convinced already, in that he appears to be okay with anything Jehovah said in the Old Testament. So I would ask him, “Leo, do you believe Jesus was correct when he said, ‘Scripture cannot be broken’?” and follow what I will assume will be a “yes” with “How would you explain this then?” and quote this verse from Peter:
“... just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.”
It sounds like Peter is putting Paul’s writing on the same level as the Old Testament, which our friend Leo has already demonstrated that he trusts.


IC: Very good. And in a way, you’ve tackled my job. For now I can ask him if he views the Old Testament and New Testament as equally inspired — and whether it makes more sense to seek harmony between them, or to claim one is made defunct or only secondary by the other. I know people who argue that the New Testament supplants the Old entirely; but in his argument, Leo is supposing that the Old would erase the New. I’d want to point that out to him.

Tom: Right. If you have someone who’s interested in working through these things, there’s probably dozens of different approaches that would get them talking, but the main takeaway I’d like to leave from this is: Use the best opener you have, keep it relevant and KEEP IT SHORT.

Every day online, I see intelligent Christians trying to school younger believers by writing paragraph after paragraph without even stopping to find out first exactly where the younger guy is in his thinking. And even if nobody responds directly to the person pontificating, everyone who reads what he’s written is thinking “TL;DR”. That’s why I always prefer opening with a question to opening with a lecture.

Listening First

IC: The listening thing is really good. The other thing is that if you’re dealing with a person who is sincere, then he or she is on a sort of “journey” of thought. It may be the start, well into the trip, nearing the end, or wherever; but you need to know where the person is, and encourage him or her not to pause there.

Tom: Good. Yes. I hoped we’d get into tone at bit ...

IC: Sometimes that means using a kindly-worded invitation or a provoking line of questioning to dislodge him or her from the settled state. But then one has to be patient, personable and open in order to cultivate a conversation that he or she experiences as non-threatening and helpful.

Key to that is to be on a sincere journey yourself — for which one of us knows it all already? So we can afford to listen first, and to give credit where credit is due if our conversation partner’s line of thought also challenges and stretches our own understanding. An ideal spiritual conversation with a person of goodwill is not adversarial, but rather one in which both parties come away feeling enriched and made wiser by the exchange of ideas. And even when most of the learning turns out to be on one side, nobody is caused to feel diminished by the experience, but rather expanded.

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