Picking and Choosing
The denomination in which I serve—Mennonite Church Canada—is currently asking its congregations to engage in a lengthy and challenging process of facing challenging difficult ethical issues of our day (issues around human sexuality, religious pluralism, pacifism, environmental concerns, etc.) head on and discerning together what the Spirit seems to be saying to us regarding how we are to respond as followers of Jesus. The “Being a Faithful Church” process is an attempt to put hands and feet to our theology. Mennonites affirm, among other things, the importance of community, the priesthood of all believers, the inappropriateness of hierarchical power structures and modes of relating to one another, and freedom of the Spirit to lead us into deeper and truer understandings of Scripture. The “Being a Faithful Church” process is an (ambitious!) opportunity for churches to demonstrate that we actually we believe what we say we do.
As such, our church has devoted time during two of the last four Sunday mornings to wrestling with how and why we read and interpret Scripture—before we get to this or that thorny ethical issue. In my view, Mennonite Church Canada has got things in exactly the right order. So many of the issues that Christians disagree about are, at their core, a disagreement about hermeneutics. We approach the Bible with different assumptions about the nature of Scripture, the goal of reading Scripture, and the role Scripture is called to play in the life of faith, which often leads us to different conclusions on ethical matters. If we can’t first at least talk about the assumptions we bring to the Bible, it will become far too easy for debates about controversial issues to degenerate into slinging verses at one another across a chasm of angry incomprehension.
(Hmm, I wonder if that’s ever happened before?)
No, we must begin with the Bible and how we read it if we hope to make even minimal progress on some of these hot-button issues. We may not agree about how we are approaching Scripture—whether within a denomination or across denominations—but surely at least being honest about our biases and assumptions represents an important first step in any headway we might hope to make. Is it difficult and time-consuming to lay these assumptions on the table and talk about them? Sure. Is it guaranteed to lead to unanimous agreement and/or neat and tidy conclusions? Probably not. But I think it is worth the effort anyway. I think the church is always better served by being honest with each other, whether it is about how we read the Bible, or about anything else.
At any rate, I had our Sunday session at church in mind as I read the following passages from Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? this afternoon. I think McLaren’s words are particularly intriguing to think of in light of the frequent refrain one often hears in difficult conversations about what the Bible says about x or y: “But aren’t you just picking and choosing the parts of the Bible that you prefer?” According to McLaren, we all do this anyway, and not only is it unavoidable, but it is downright good and necessary:
In our liturgical practices of reading, interpreting and preaching the Bible, we are repeatedly forced to choose between hostility and hospitality, mercy and condemnation, compassion and legalism, forgiveness and revenge, laying down our lives or taking the lives of others… page after page, reading after reading, Sunday after Sunday. The way we read, interpret and preach the Bible not only reveals what is hidden in our hearts, but it holds the key for changing or reforming our hearts…
Those of us intent upon forging a strong and benevolent Christian identity in our multi-faith world will be carrying our Bibles with (or within) us. We will read and teach the Bible responsibly and ethically, following the strong and benevolent examples of Paul and Jesus. We will pick all passages that advocate hostility, vengeance, exclusion, elitism and superiority to remind us of where we would be and who we would be if not for Christ. And we will choose all passages that advocate reconciliation, empathy, inclusion, solidarity and equality to remind us of where we are going and who we are called to be in Christ—a precious identity indeed.
When it comes to Scripture, we are all pickers and choosers. It cannot be otherwise. So, let’s just gladly and honestly say so and move on to the more important (and interesting!) task of talking about how and why we pick and choose the way we do.