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.