Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Communication and the Bible

Think about a relationship with someone you know very well. Now, think about one of times when there was a colossal failure of communication. The other party said something to you and in the saying of it they had a certain intention. But because of your blood sugar, work frustrations, other relational stresses, and host of other factors, their words and body language were received by you as meaning something entirely different than what was intended. They were offering encouragement and you received it as condemnation. They had a question and you received it as an accusation. Has it happened to you?

Of course. The good news is that with a little deconstructing, clarifying, and rearticulating, the two of you can come closer to reality. It takes a little work, but it can happen. What’s far more difficult is finding clarity of what the author was trying to say when you’re reading a book – the Bible, for example. You’re trying to understand if all those slaughters in the Old Testament means God’s OK with war, or if instead the teachings of Jesus about turning the other cheek mean that war is simply not an option for the person of faith. Maybe you want to know what God thinks about homosexuality, or divorce, or capitalism (of the three, God seems least ambiguous about divorce). So you read, but the feedback loop seems closed. How do we come up with a sense of what God is saying? I’d suggest that, among other things, the following communication tools will help:

  1. Humility: I need to come to grips with the reality that I don’t always know what my wife is saying clearly and I’ve lived with her for 27 years. I bring my own script to the table and so I sometimes miss her point entirely. Only later, after clarifying comments, do I begin to understand. The same thing is true with the Bible. I need to live with the convictions that I have UNTIL I’m persuaded that I’ve missed something, that God was trying to tell us something other than I thought. This shifting has happened sometimes. Sometimes it’s gotten me into trouble with people who’ve been threatened by a theology that evolves. But I’m convinced that if the heart is looking for truth, our theology WILL evolve.
  2. Clarifying Voices: When I misunderstand someone and they know I’ve missed the point, they might look at me, cock their head say, “You just don’t get it do you!” Then they’ll say it again, “What I meant was…” and their clarifying statements will have provide the needed light. When we read the Bible, the clarifying voices are there too – you just need to look a little more closely to find them. I don’t have time to go into right here, but the clarifying voices that I find most helpful are: a) Other scripture passages, b) the cultural context of a passage, and c) Church history. None of these are ‘trump cards’ that alone bring a definitive clarifying interpretation. But all are important. Without them, singular passages from the Bible can be used in incredibly destructive ways.
  3. The Holy Spirit. This seems to be the most vital source of correction and clarification. If we read the Bible prayerfully, asking the Holy Spirit to show us what God is saying, I believe that prayer will be answered. Of course, two people pray such a prayer and still come to diametrically opposite conclusions in many, many areas. That’s why we need humility – but humility doesn’t mean that we stop living until we get it all figured out. It simply means that we understand that, until we see Christ face to face, we’re on a journey. So let’s give each other the grace to remain in fellowship and dialogue, because the voice of the other will help me see with greater clarity if I approach it with prayer, humility, and a commitment to truth.


At 3/5/07 18:00, Anonymous donte said...


I’ve agreed with everything that you have said, but I would like to offer a 4th point to consider—

I think it is important to study the Bible to understand what God wants us to know collectively, but we should also desire to know God so intimately that we understand what he is revealing to us personally. I am thinking about the story of Abraham and his response when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac. One could argue that Abraham should not have listened to the voice of God, because our Biblical understanding of God’s character is that he would never command anyone to kill an innocent child. Of course in hindsight we all view it as an act of great faith.

Or, how about the story of Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Peter could have used scripture after scripture to refute what God was revealing to him personally (and he tried to), but he accepted God’s prophetic vision which then initiated the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles.

I want to understand what God has revealed to us collectively through the Bible, but I think we should also consider how He reveals Himself to us personally.

At 3/5/07 20:18, Anonymous Davey said...

Pastor Dahlstrom-

Thanks for the thought provoking post! I particularly like the idea of "evolving theology." One of the things I think we most need as Christians is to remain teachable, particularly when our paradigms are challenged by those around us. To me, it seems that honestly listening to people of differing opinions than our own benefits both in their pursuit of the truth, while arguing about differences only serves to drive both parties farther from it.

On another note, however, I would say that there is something beautiful about having a solid, unchanging theological foundation on which to stand. That is something that I find wonderful about the Catholic Church. Its roots are very deep and the liturgy does not change. Sure, the Catholic Church is far from perfect and has numerous struggles of its own, but in today's world filled with relativism, I really want to know that my current interpretation of the scriptures, something that I found my life upon, is not just the latest trend or a bad piece of pizza I had for dinner the previous evening.


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