For the well-meaning Christian: the rightly divided word.

This is less a defin­i­tive post than it is a per­son­al obser­va­tion and pub­lic ques­tion­ing. I’d love to have a dis­cus­sion about this phe­nom­e­non, large­ly because I’m still kind of pro­cess­ing my obser­va­tions and what they imply. But do keep in mind that my opin­ion is just that — mine. You don’t have to share it, and you’re wel­come to share your views in the com­ments!

If there’s one thing the Ply­mouth Brethren taught me that will prob­a­bly nev­er ever go away, it’s the abil­i­ty to notice pat­terns in both writ­ten word and lived-out actions. Con­sid­er­ing humans in gen­er­al notice pat­terns to ensure our sur­vival and to imbue our lives with mean­ing, com­bined with how so much of Ply­mouth Brethren-prac­ticed the­ol­o­gy is based upon what they see as pat­terns in Scrip­ture, it’s real­ly no won­der.

Late­ly though, I’ve been notic­ing how many peo­ple, men in par­tic­u­lar, (men with Ply­mouth Brethren influ­ences even more par­tic­u­lar­ly) approach me, my sto­ry, and my cri­tique of their reli­gion. And I’m kind of fas­ci­nat­ed by it, in the same way cats are fas­ci­nat­ed by knock­ing things off of tables just to see the world burn.

Animated gif of a white cat sitting on a ledge. A human keeps putting things in front of the cat, who summarily pushes everything off the edge.

Conservative Christian men approach what I say in the exact same way they approach what the Bible says.

It’s as if the right­ly divid­ed word has less to do with con­text & intent than use­ful­ness to a par­tic­u­lar cause or argu­ment. I know that’s quite a claim to make, but the more I reflect on how I was taught to approach the Bible and observe how these men approach my words, the more pro­nounced the par­al­lel becomes. What do I mean, exact­ly?

  1. They iso­late our words from the con­text in which they were writ­ten.
  2. Then they insist that nei­ther con­text nor autho­r­i­al intent can mean­ing­ful­ly affect a “plain read­ing.”
  3. Final­ly, they assert that any oth­er inter­pre­ta­tion is intel­lec­tu­al­ly dis­hon­est.

This par­al­lel struck me with star­tling clar­i­ty as I was men­tal­ly pro­cess­ing an email I received from a man who didn’t like what I had to say about his appli­ca­tion of my work. His response was to pri­vate­ly mes­sage me with var­i­ous quotes in my own words, ripped out of con­text from dif­fer­ent arti­cles I’ve writ­ten. After quot­ing me out of con­text at myself, he pro­ceed­ed to give his own inter­pre­ta­tion of what I meant, insist­ing there was only one pos­si­ble mean­ing (a mean­ing in direct oppo­si­tion of my explic­it­ly stat­ed beliefs). Fur­ther, he attempt­ed to shame me for hav­ing any qualms with his orig­i­nal botch­ing of my words, insist­ing that he meant well and we should dia­logue fur­ther to come to an agree­ment some­how. It was real­ly a delight­ful email, one that I even con­tem­plat­ed respond­ing to until I real­ized that there sim­ply was no point. He already made up his mind about me and my beliefs, and no amount of expla­na­tion would sat­is­fy him since he could so eas­i­ly twist my words to mean what he want­ed them to mean.

Like my friend Saman­tha Field, this is a phe­nom­e­non I’m encoun­ter­ing with far greater reg­u­lar­i­ty as I write more pub­licly about my expe­ri­ences with reli­gion. (The fact that I’m a woman with strong opin­ions about these expe­ri­ences seems to only fuel the fire.) I found these para­graphs par­tic­u­lar­ly descrip­tive of the typ­i­cal mes­sages I’ve received from men over the years who take umbrage at my words.

This type of man– I’m going to call him Mr. Apol­o­gist– sends me an e-mail that opens with how con­cerned he is and how much he just wants to under­stand me. He wants to clar­i­fy things in order to com­mu­ni­cate clear­ly. All those ital­i­cized words have become red flags for me, as well as the tone in which they’re said. Mr. Apol­o­gist is mild, bor­der­ing on gen­tle, and every word is obvi­ous­ly meant to be sooth­ing. He goes out of his way to seem as non-com­bat­ive as pos­si­ble. He just wants to talk.

For the first cou­ple years, I took Mr. Apol­o­gist seri­ous­ly. I would craft exten­sive, well-thought-out replies. I engaged these men for hours, for days, doing what I thought was my job– after all, I’m a fem­i­nist. If some­one comes to me ask­ing ques­tions, I’m going to use every oppor­tu­ni­ty I can to edu­cate. I would do indi­vid­u­al­ly-tai­lored research, find­ing resources I thought would help this man par­tic­u­lar­ly well.

Over time, how­ev­er, I noticed a pat­tern: inevitably all of these men would become recal­ci­trant. I would tamp down feel­ings of frus­tra­tion, telling myself stern­ly that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and this would take time and effort and patience. But, even­tu­al­ly, it would become obvi­ous that Mr. Apol­o­gist is not actu­al­ly inter­est­ed in “under­stand­ing” me. What Mr. Apol­o­gist wants to do is find out what my par­tic­u­lar set of pre­sup­po­si­tions, argu­ments, and sup­port are for var­i­ous issues so that he can bring to bear every­thing he picked up at his “Defend­ing the Faith” class at church.

As I’ve said before, the Ply­mouth Brethren are a par­tic­u­lar­ly aca­d­e­m­ic bunch. They pride them­selves on their abil­i­ty to right­ly divide the Word of Truth, while often squelch­ing any emo­tion that might con­tra­dict the per­fect Word of God. (In fact, that was a praise I was often giv­en as a Chris­t­ian: I always tried to do the right thing, no mat­ter the cost to myself. I was invis­i­ble so all you could see was Jesus, and I always had a bib­li­cal expla­na­tion for big deci­sions in my life.)

I believe it’s at least in part due to this emo­tion­al­ly-stunt­ed approach to Scrip­ture that many bib­li­cal lit­er­al­ists have an equal­ly emo­tion­al­ly stunt­ed approach to peo­ple, par­tic­u­lar­ly peo­ple with whom they dis­agree. Con­ser­v­a­tive Chris­tians in gen­er­al, not just the Ply­mouth Brethren, often prac­tice no con­tex­tu­al study of the Bible — quite the oppo­site, a plain read­ing is insist­ed upon. Oth­er peo­ple more qual­i­fied than I have talked about both the dan­ger of a lit­er­al inter­pre­ta­tion of the Bible and the incon­sis­ten­cy with which a lit­er­al met­ric is applied to the text* (and Google is a bet­ter teacher than I!), but suf­fice it to say that approach­ing any ancient text with a com­plete dis­re­gard for the con­text and cul­ture in which it was writ­ten will be dis­as­trous at best and yield a total­ly inac­cu­rate pic­ture of its sig­nif­i­cance and mean­ing, not to men­tion skew any appli­ca­tion there­of. Approach­ing peo­ple the same way, though? As if their words can be sep­a­rat­ed from their per­sons in a con­text all their own? Not only will that also yield a com­plete­ly inac­cu­rate pic­ture of the per­son you’re attempt­ing to dis­sect, it’s utter­ly dehu­man­iz­ing.

In a way, this kind of rela­tion­ship with both their holy book and the peo­ple they claim to believe are made in God’s image makes me won­der about their belief in God. Can it real­ly be said to be belief in God if man is the sole arbiter of what inter­pre­ta­tion is final? Of course they’ll say that the Bible as God’s Word has the final say (I mean, that’s what I would have said), but when the only “accept­able” approach to the Bible is an approach that ignores every­thing that gives it con­text and mean­ing, the inter­pre­ta­tion of the mes­sage and prac­tice there­of is as good as if God didn’t exist. Just like address­ing my words instead of me is as good as if I don’t exist.

Con­text is absolute­ly key to under­stand­ing words and thoughts and ideas. A lit­er­al­ist approach to both the Bible and peo­ple is a delib­er­ate refusal to hon­or autho­r­i­al con­sent, intent, or con­text. Such an approach doesn’t focus on the total­i­ty of the per­son they’re deal­ing with. It only takes what will apply to their argu­ments and the­olo­gies in a way that sup­port their exist­ing beliefs, in a way that allows them to win, respect or accu­ra­cy be damned. And that’s no way to approach a holy book — or a per­son.


*Of course, as an athe­ist I dis­agree with Saman­tha about a lit­er­al res­ur­rec­tion of Jesus, but that’s not real­ly a thing that affects our friend­ship or my appre­ci­a­tion of her aca­d­e­m­ic rig­or. I linked to this arti­cle specif­i­cal­ly for the sec­tion on Inerran­cy and Infal­li­bil­i­ty. 

Related reading:

Basic empathy & respect.

It just seems like so many of you are so caught up in the fact that we don’t play for the same team, as it were, that you’ve com­plete­ly lost the abil­i­ty to empathize with me (or with any­one who believes dif­fer­ent­ly than you). And talk­ing to peo­ple who lack basic empa­thy for oth­ers is kin­da scary, and cer­tain­ly not an endorse­ment of your beliefs. A sys­tem of belief that sev­ers com­mu­ni­ty and dehu­man­izes the very peo­ple it says it wants to reach is not a sys­tem that can real­ly claim to love or accept any­one, espe­cial­ly not uncon­di­tion­al­ly.

But hon­est­ly? I don’t real­ly care about whether you’re liv­ing up to the high­er ideals of your faith or not. What I care about is how you treat me and any­one else you dis­agree so strong­ly with, because a lot of you seem to lack the know-how of show­ing basic empa­thy or respect for peo­ple who are real­ly dif­fer­ent from you.

I real­ly hope you can hear me out about what I am say­ing and what I’m not say­ing here, because I absolute­ly don’t expect any of you to stop talk­ing about your faith in gen­er­al. It’s such a huge part of your lives, and it’d be real­ly unfair of me to expect you to keep such an impor­tant part of your life to your­self and nev­er speak of it. That’s cru­el and dis­re­spect­ful, and would mean that I don’t real­ly care about you in the first place. To bor­row the spir­it of the words of a friend, “It’s part of your life — and I like your life.”

This is where it could do you some good to learn a lit­tle empa­thy, learn to put your­self in my shoes for a lit­tle bit, so maybe you can learn what treat­ing me with respect actu­al­ly looks like.

Humility in listening.

You’re tak­ing own­er­ship of my sto­ry, man­gling it beyond recog­ni­tion, then insist­ing I accept your ver­sion rather than my own. You’re say­ing you’re a bet­ter judge of my expe­ri­ences and life than I am. And when you sup­pose these things about my life and my beliefs, you are being incred­i­bly dis­re­spect­ful and unlov­ing. Like Cas­sidy said. it’s like you grew up in a home where smack­ing some­one upside the head was con­sid­ered lov­ing, and you’re now indig­nant that you can’t smack me, too.

I get it. I do. I did the same thing. I believed rather strong­ly that any­one who left the faith was nev­er a Chris­t­ian to begin with but had been deceived into think­ing they were. And I wasn’t shy about this belief, nor did I fal­ter in said belief.

Until it hap­pened to me.