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Rick Warren and the American Hermeneutic
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What Matters Most, a Little and Inbetween
I need to clarify some things I said about Rick Warren in my last Update. (To see what I wrote in July, click here ). Specifically, Jeanette Post, an fan from my PRISM days wrote to me not long after the last Update suggesting that she:
…was disappointed in your Conclusion which hit me immediately as a "dig" against Rick Warren. I am not a particular "fan" of Rick Warren.… I have read the book and am amazed with others how this rather simple book has impacted the lives of so many. And I have heard various criticisms such as using The Message too much, his casual dress,etc, etc. I reread your remarks this morning and again wondered what was gained in including your Conclusion?...
Further, she wrote:
This "small thought" is very disturbing to me and dripped with sarcasm So what if Rick did not have a revelation until recently about the poor and the HIV_AIDS in Africa? There is a lot in scripture that has always "been there" but impacts individual Christians at different times in their lives. I am 74 and it seems that the "been there" truths of the fruits of the spirit have kind of whammed me with great conviction - particularly in the middle of the night when I can think all sorts of negative thoughts about all kinds of people and situations. Perhaps God has waited to truly convict Rick of the poor because now his impact on so many people in his "monstrous" church are just the ones God wants to use to assist in this "revelation". I am enjoying reading the new TNIV translation. I Cor. 13:5 reads "Love.....does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs."
OK, a few things in response.
First, I like Warren. He’s certainly not one of the bad guys out there (tho’ I tend to think he’s a bit naïve politically/socially/economically, having bought the whole “government has to act only when the church fails” argument of the Neo-con establishment, an argument that couldn’t be further from the truth and that discounts the various and appropriate activist roles that all aspects of society should play--including the government--as we engage social crises around us) and he clearly wants to use his power for good. He may be naïve, he’s worth paying attention to.
Second, my intention in these remarks was as far from “dripping” with sarcasm as I can imagine--in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever meant to be more straightforward in my life. (This was clearly a failure of my writing, for which I apologize--and which I’m trying to atone for/fix right here.) Like I said, I kinda like RW and I don’t think that Purpose Driven Life to be that bad of a read. Besides, I know the guy who ghosted most of the book and he’s truly one of the good guys in all of Christendom.
Third, you need to understand that my indictment of Mr. Warren is not about his character or faith, but of how he reads the Bible--his hermeneutic--and by extension an indictment of the North American evangelical hermeneutic that shapes that reading. This indictment includes all of us who are evangelical in some way--especially when we open our Bibles.
The fact is that our hermeneutic is woefully blind and self-selective, which tends to reinforce the dominant (or at least structural) values of our culture and critique only the superstructural ones we don’t like. We might get all riled up about who gets to marry who, but rarely ask questions about a culture that allows short term lenders (cash checking agencies) to charge up to 1000% per annum--that’s not a typo. Why aren’t we reading about charging usury to the poor in the Old Testament and just as up in arms about that as same-sex canoodling--especially since there’s a hell of a lot more about usury in the Scriptures than about homosexuality? How could at least five generations of American dispensationalists and evangelicals (the same good folks who brought us Hal Linsey Late Great Planet Earth and the LaHaye/Jenkins’ Left Behind mega-sellers) be taught that Matthew 25’s Parable of the Sheep and the Goats was about how the nation-states of the world treat the people and nation-state of Israel, all while advocating that we should always read Scripture for its first plain reading?
It’s a quandary, to be honest, but one that’s led to the creation of a hermeneutical civil religion. We may, as a good friend, professor and mentor reminded me after that last Update, be like cucumbers, who have more chance of becoming a pickle than the brine. Have we, he asked, so inoculated ourselves in our culture that we can no longer “hear” the WORD. I think this--I believe it--about Mr. Warren, yes, but about me too. The truth is that I don’t know how to live simply, live in community, or how to really live in this culture in a way that actually takes Matthew 25 or John the Baptist’s definition of repentance or even grace seriously.
Indeed, what I wrote was intended as an indictment of all of us “believers” who want a “personal relationship” with Jesus but who don’t want to include a conversation about the tough stuff--like how we treat the most vulnerable among us--when the choir starts humming “Just As I Am.”
My little paragraph about Mr. Warren and his new revelation was meant to remind us that some things are not negotiable, as much as that might suck--and by any measure of my life, (especially given my short expiration date), that really, really sucks. Any conversation about conversion must include a discussion of what is essential to true Christian faith, and I believe, whether I like it or not, that the Bible clear that concern for the weak, the marginalized, the poor, the voiceless, is included in that discussion. Do we need a special insight or revelation to understand the plain reading of Scripture? I think we don’t and shouldn’t--and if we do there’s something wrong with how we read the Bible. (And, I remind myself, if we refuse to have that conversation it’s an awfully long walk home when we, like the “rich young rulers” that we are, walk home sorrowfully because we love our things and power.)
The reality is that our hermeneutic is squeejaw.
Our hermeneutic is American.
My friend Ms. Post says that the special revelations she and others have received to see what’s been there all along have been extra special and meaningful. Good--and certainly true. She also suggests that RW’s recent convictions regarding AIDS in Africa--and specifically Rwanda--may serve to best exploit his current power in both Africa and here in the U.S. Fantastic. I hope it does and that he has the savvy to do so, and all signs are that he will. But that doesn’t change the fact that our readings of the Bible in North America almost deliberately leave out whole passages regarding justice and “the least, the last and the lost” and when we read the text that way we mislead entire generations and put their faith and souls and communities and witness in peril….
I stand by my comments.