Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Whole Story

Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, once told this story on the old David Letterman show. He was in a cafe at a train station in his native Great Britain. He bought a newspaper and a package of cookies (he called them biscuits). He put them on a table and got himself some tea. When he returned to his table he found that another traveler had seated himself on the opposite side of the table, probably because the cafe was crowded. This did not bother Adams because the arrangement was temporary. One or the other would eventually get up to catch a train. What did bother Adams was that the other man was helping himself to a cookie from the package and eating it. Adams, being British, did not wish to make a fuss and so, sitting down, he asserted his ownership of the cookies by taking one himself and eating it. Then the other man just as coolly as before took another cookie and ate it. Now Adams was flummoxed. He had not objected before to the man's taking the first cookie and so felt odd making a row about it now. He merely took another cookie to reassert his possession of the package of cookies. But then so did the other fellow. And so it went until all the cookies were gone, the other man thinking nothing of eating Douglas' cookies and Douglas being too much of a gentleman to speak up and make an issue of such a small thing, however rude and arrogant the other man's behavior was. At last the other man got up and left, presumably to make his train. Adams sat there looking after the jerk and wondering where he had gotten the gall the eat another man's cookies. Then his train came and Douglas got up and gathered his things. When he picked up his newspaper, however, he was surprised and chagrined to find that under it was his own package of cookies! He realized that to the other traveler, Douglas had appeared to be the jerk who was brazenly eating another man's cookies. Douglas told Letterman that somewhere in Britain there was another man telling his family and friends the very same story, except, unlike Douglas, he had no punchline!

It has often been said that the Anglican approach to faith and practice was like a three-legged stool. The 3 legs holding it up are scripture, tradition and reason. If an issue must be addressed on which scripture is silent, then one turns to tradition, what Christians have written and done in the past. If that doesn't yield an answer, then one uses reason to work it out. Though this is identified with Anglicanism, all denominations use the same method, even if they don't use the same labels. Our basic beliefs and behaviors come from the Bible and, as 16th century theologian Richard Hooker points out, everything necessary for a person's salvation is found in scripture. You cannot require for salvation something not found in the Bible. But on issues not found in the Bible (method of baptism, for instance, or the composition of the bread used for communion) we tend to look at traditions, either in the history of the church in general or within our own denominations. If they don't seem to contradict scripture, and if they are helpful, we use them.

The tricky bit, and where we get the most variations among denominations, is when we get to the use of reason. And I think it is not always the use of faulty reasoning that causes the problems. Two lines of the thought can both be logical and yet contradict each other. For instance, if a philosophical problem is approached by both an atheist and by a theist, each resulting lines of reasoning could be self-consistent while simultaneously coming to very different conclusions from one another. The difference would be in the premises, the foundational truths upon which each argument was built. For the Christian that reasoning, needless to say, must take as its premises what scripture says on related or underlying issues so that the resulting answer is consistent with the Bible. So why do Christians come to different answers when they use reason? I think a lot of the differences between theologies are based on the differing interpretations of various parts of scripture and the weight given to certain principles derived from scripture.

To this so-called 3 legged stool (though I would rather think of it as a step stool with 3 stairs) some people wish to add a 4th leg or level: experience. It is true that experience can reveal things that cannot be deduced from an armchair. Theory only goes so far in finding the truth. Some things are best learned through experience. But, as we see from the Douglas Adams anecdote, the experience has to be properly interpreted or you get a totally different idea of what really happened.

I had a violin teacher who had been in a very bad car wreck in which the car burst into flames. He however was thrown clear. So he now refused to wear seat belts because otherwise he might have burned to death. I was a kid so I didn't know then what I do now. Which is: (1) Contrary to what you see in TV and movies, cars rarely burst into flames when crashed. Only 4% of vehicle fires are caused by collisions. 2/3s of vehicle fires are caused by mechanical and electrical problems. (2) More than half of all people killed in car crashes were not wearing seat belts. Because getting hurled from your vehicle--smashing through the windshield and hitting the pavement or a pole at 60 miles an hour or more--is a really good way to break most of the bones in your body and turn your internal organs into leaking bags of blood. Which can kill you. My violin teacher's survival of a very rare kind of accident was a fluke. Instead of thanking God for beating the odds, he concluded that it was preferable to be flung from a car than to be caught in a statistically unlikely fiery crash. He learned from his experience; unfortunately he learned the wrong lesson.

In our New Testament passage (2 Peter 1:16-21) it says, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” So the author is claiming firsthand experience of what he's talking about. But later he says, “First of all you must understand this, that no prophesy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation, because no prophesy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” The problem is whose interpretation is being referred to? The reader's? The prophet's? The translators' notes in the NET Bible makes a strong argument that it refers to the prophet. Which fits in with what we see in scripture. When Daniel or Ezekiel or John see a vision they ask God or an angelic messenger what it means and receive an explanation.

In other words, it would be as if a first responder had reached my violin teacher as he lay outside his flaming car and, as he administered first aid, told him how lucky he was, in that collisions rarely caused vehicle fires and people thrown from cars are frequently killed. He would have gotten an objective explanation of his experience and he wouldn't have taken away from it a disastrously erroneous lesson. 

What a person contributed when he wrote a book of the Bible was not his or her private interpretation of his experience of God. But does that mean that what they wrote was simply dictated by God? No, because we can see that the various writers use different vocabularies, different writing styles, and focus on different themes. Paul and John each have distinct voices. Ezekiel will never be mistaken for Jeremiah. Matthew and Luke cover the same events in Jesus' life yet each has a unique approach in their accounts. As our passage says, all were moved by the Holy Spirit. The word “moved” might be better translated “carried” or “borne” as by a mighty wind. In other words, they were taken where the Spirit wanted them to go and shown what the Spirit wanted them to see. Then they each recounted what they saw and heard using their own individual ways of expression.

But why don't they speak in one single voice and style? Why do the things they write sometimes seem to contrast to the extent that some see these as contradictions?

I have probably used this Buddhist parable before. A group of blind monks encounter an elephant for the first time. One feels the girth of one of the beast's legs and declares that an elephant is like a tree. A second one pats along its broad side and says the elephant is like a wall. A third monk touches its tusk and proclaims that the elephant is more like a spear. A fourth feels its trunk and says the animal is like a snake. A fifth feels the ear and announces that the elephant is like a palm leaf. They seem to contradict one another but actually they are all correct—about the part of the elephant that they are encountering at that time. They are, however, failing to take into account all of the data that their fellow monks are gathering through their also limited experience with the elephant. To get a more complete picture, you need to bring it all together.

Think of the 4 gospels. Matthew emphasizes Jesus as the new Moses, proclaiming a deeper, more comprehensive law that is less about picky details and more about one's moral state and how a Christian's behavior flows from following Jesus. Mark emphasizes Jesus as the Son of God who is master over all creation. Luke emphasizes Jesus as the Spirit-filled savior of the whole world, showing special compassion for the poor and for women. John emphasizes Jesus as the Incarnate Word or Expression of God's nature, who gives life and light to all. These are not contradictions but different perspectives on the same person, each bringing out new aspects of Christ and his mission. No one gospel gives us a complete account. And at least one gospel writer realized this.

John's gospel, the last one written, seems to deliberately not cover certain major events the other 3 gospels narrate in order to concentrate on material the others don't have but which fleshes out and explains incidents in those same gospels. Only John tells us that after Jesus fed the 5000, the crowd tried to make him their king and that what Jesus said caused many to stop following him. Only John lets us know Jesus' ministry lasted at least 3 years. Only John tells us that the raising of Lazarus was the event that triggered the plot by the Sanhedrin to have Jesus killed. Only John tells us that it was fear of being reported as being disloyal to the emperor which caused Pilate to give the order for Jesus' crucifixion. Only John's gospel gives us a detailed account of the discovery of the empty tomb and of Jesus' three-fold reconciliation of Peter after his three-fold denial of Christ. Our understanding of Jesus' life and mission would be considerably poorer without John's gospel completing and complementing the others.

Since the Bible is a library of books written by at least 40 authors in different times we have a lot of perspectives on God. Like the monk's observations, each is true but none is exhaustive. Neither is the Bible exhaustive; how could any book encompass all there is to say about God? John's gospel even concludes by saying, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” And that's just talking about what Jesus did during his earthly life. How could any book or series of books record every single thing God has done or is doing?

So what the Bible says about God is true but not exhaustive. And the Bible gives us several perspectives which, when brought together, give us a fuller idea of our very large and complex triune God. 

So what? What do we do with this insight?

For one thing, we need to realize that what the Bible gives us are the basics of what we need to know about God but not everything it is possible to know about God. The foundation has been laid as well as the structure of the first several floors along with an artist's rendering of the finished building. More can be added but it must be built on what has already been laid down and it must be in harmony with the grand concept. 

N. T. Wright likes to compare the Bible with an unfinished 5 act play. We have the first four acts: Creation, the Calling of the Covenant People, Exile and Return, the Coming of the Messiah. What we must do is improvise the last act but do so in line with the direction in which the author is going so that we arrive at the conclusion he has plotted out. We cannot ignore or contradict what has come before. If you've ever seen the game show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” you know that in improvisation the basic attitude of the cast is “Yes, and....” You have to say “Yes” to the premise and to what other cast members establish but then you build on that. If you are doing a Japanese monster film parody and a fellow cast member says, “Look, there's a giant 3-headed gerbil destroying Tokyo,” you can't say, “No, there isn't!” But you can say, “Yes and he's seems to be selling Girl Scout cookies as well!”

In our case, the story we are telling is that of our loving God redeeming his straying creatures and his fallen creation. The ending is the recreation of heaven and earth. Our roles are to be followers of Jesus, the incarnate, crucified and risen Son of God who has commissioned us to tell his story and bring others under his royal reign. He could do it all himself but he is graciously letting us work with him to accomplish his goal.

Our challenge is to carry out what he has commanded us to do in a world that is constantly changing and which generally opposes God's justice and mercy. Thus we will have to improvise. But we are not left to our own devices. We have the aid of his Spirit. Following his lead and using the gifts and talents he has supplied us with, we are able to fulfill his commands to love God with all we are and all we have and to love everyone else, neighbor or enemy, family, friend or stranger.

Basically, all we are doing is answering this question: what is the most loving thing to do for this person in this situation? To speak up or to listen? To lift them up or make sure they are grounded? To show them how to do something or to let them discover how? To confront or to comfort? To lead them or to get out of their way? To hug them or to give them a little push? Or all of the above? Just because our only response is to love doesn't mean that we are one trick ponies. Love can be shown in a million ways. Some may require creativity and flexibility while others just need persistence and consistency.

After Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter answered, “You are the Christ!” Jesus told them he must be crucified. Peter remonstrated with Jesus for saying this and Jesus rebuked Peter. He said anyone following his way must disown himself and take up his cross. That's what they needed to know at the time. Jesus also told his disciples that some of them would not die before seeing him come in glory. Immediately after that we get the story of the transfiguration. I think part of this was to give Peter, James and John the assurance they needed that, despite the pain, suffering and death he would face in the immediate future, Jesus was who they thought he was. And I think this was a fulfillment of the promise that they would see him in glory before they died. John was given an even grander vision, that of a new heaven and a new earth and a new Jerusalem where God would be with his people, drying their eyes and abolishing pain and death and sorrow. If they hadn't experienced it, they wouldn't have the punchline; they wouldn't know the whole story; they wouldn't have seen the surprising happy ending.

We don't have the complete story in this life. We don't have every single detail spelled out for us. But we have enough. We know who the hero is, the Prince of Peace, the Anointed one. We know that he rescues us from the tyranny of those things that enslave us. We know, from Revelation from which every timeless story gets its imagery, that one day he will slay the evil dragon and marry his bride and they will live happily ever after in his gleaming city. And we know he has called us to play our parts. We do know how it will turn out; we just don't know exactly how. To find out, we only have to say, “Yes, Lord. And...”

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