Wide and Narrow II

I shall wade into the waters that I (gently) stirred in Wide and Narrow. If you didn’t read it–or don’t want to now–what I basically said is that Christians tend to narrow their orthodoxy and widen their orthopraxy, which I think is quite the opposite to how things should be. I refrained from expanding on that thought, but I will now.

On the orthopraxy end, there has been a concerted effort on the part of theologians and teachers to explain away and lessen the demands of what discipleship to Jesus actually looks like in practice. Nowhere is this tendency more obvious than in the Sermon on the Mount, a sustained discourse on nonviolence, weakness, and a radically other-centred life of love.

Ironically, it is the so-called scriptural conservatives who do the most fascinating hermeneutical tangoing when it comes to avoiding the “literal” sense of Jesus’ words. I remember the new believer naïveté with which I assumed that my conservative evangelical church would want to take Jesus’ teachings seriously. I also remember thinking, in the wake of September 11, that George Bush (being a good evangelical who takes Jesus’ words literally) would of course have to forgive the terrorists in accordance with Jesus’ teachings on forgiveness. How wrong I was! And how few biblical literalists rebuked Bush for his failure to follow Jesus’ teachings…

Let’s not let the politics obscure things here. I’m simply saying that we seem to be fantastic at widening the scope of orthopraxy to the degree that Jesus’ teachings are trivialized and even outright disregarded. Even the Mennonite church that I grew up in has abandoned its historical position of literal application of the Sermon on the Mount for a kinder, mushier evan-jelly-calism. To whit: I did not hear a single sermon on pacifism during my entire childhood and adolescence.

I know this is only one side of the coin, that I haven’t touched on broader parameters for orthodoxy. That’s another post. What I have done is try to shine a little light on our tendencies to interpret orthopraxy in anything but a literal sense. The words of Søren Kierkegaard are an apt way to close:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

2 responses to “Wide and Narrow II”

  1. really nice post there matt.

    I think the feelings you (and I) had that “my conservative evangelical church would want to take Jesus’ teachings seriously,” were not naive but simply picking up on the orthodoxy seriousness. Or perhaps the seriousness was related to maintaining a social order that had little to do with what was in the Bible but a whole lot to do with talking alot about the Bible.

    Hence the old story where a preacher gives two messages with opposite feedback from the congregation: one message where the themes and conclusions came from careful exegesis but in which he never quoted scripture, and another message in which he quoted the Bible left, right, and sideways but all his conclusions were not drawn from the text. The congregation loved one message and hated the other; guess which one was which!

  2. joel: unfortunately, there’s a lot more talking about the bible than trying to live it in my (admittedly narrow) experience… your story rings too true!

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