Skip to content

On John Piper, Martin Luther, Mitt Romney, and you!

January 6, 2012

Over the Christmas vacation, I have been trapped in a household that believes in only one TV channel. That channel is, of course, FOX News. Though I don’t have anything against the news in general or Rupert Murdoch in specific, there is only so much of these talking heads that one man can take–unless, of course, that man is my father-in-law, in which case he can take an unlimited amount of news, interviews, and analysis from the fair and balanced perspective.  
 
Fortunately for me, the Iowa caucuses were just this last week, diverting my attention from incessant replays of the North Koreans fake crying over Kim Jong Il’s passing. For those of you unfamiliar with the caucus system, or perhaps with the news coverage thereof, basically seven people run around Iowa begging registered voters to be their friend. They also ask them nicely on TV, or sometimes they say mean things about each other behind their backs. It’s a lot like running for homecoming king at your high school–the winner is symbolic, but everyone still wants it really badly.  
 
I guess viewing things dispassionately, I don’t know why people like politics. I, on the other hand, like sports. Some people win, others lose, and often there are big surprises. Much internet ink is spilled in analysis of these games, and I love every minute of it. However, if one doesn’t like sports, I suppose that political races could be a substitute. Winners, losers, drama, projections, analysis–the whole nine yards. Basically, FOX News is Stevia to ESPN’s sugar. It’s probably better for you, but it doesn’t taste quite as good.*  
 
*If this analogy holds, then my father in law is either Bill James, Mel Kiper, or that guy who used to wear a barrel to Denver Bronco home games. I report, you decide.  
 
Somewhere along the line, and I’m not sure how exactly this happened, I began to be interested in these Republicans running around in Iowa. I got so interested, in fact, that I stayed up late tweeting back and forth with a Republican party insider, thrilled to death with my kindergarten level insights. And, much to your chagrin, I like it well enough to write a blog post about it! THIS IS THE GREATEST DAY OF MY LIFE.  
 
There is enough analysis out there about the race, and I’ll leave the real news to those other agencies. In lieu of political analysis, I’m going to do something much more boring. I am going to compare a political issue to a religious one. Then, I will sketch out some competing positions and label them with real, live people who represent these mindsets. Hopefully, at least one reader will have heard of at least one of these people. If you haven’t, I will try to make the read worth it anyway!  
 
So if you know me very well at all, you know that I think the Bible is the foundational document for Christian faith and practice. In other words, if the Bible says it, we should do it. (Understanding what it is telling us to do is admittedly not always easy.) There are those people running around out there who believe differently about the Bible. Some think that it was a document for its own time but that many of its provisions don’t speak directly to our culture. Others find the Bible to be valuable as a conversation partner, but not having any intrinsic authority in itself. Still others believe that the text of the Scripture has no authority in itself; it is how the reader responds to it that matters.* There are almost as many different views as there are Christians. 
 
*This last line of thinking is called Reader-Response Criticism. Clever.  
 
Similarly, the United States Constitution has long been considered to be the foundational document for our government.* To hear David Barton tell it, you might think that the Bible and the Constitution are basically the same thing and that our Founding Fathers (TM) were prophets on the level with Isaiah. This is probably not the case, although I do believe a good bit of Judeo-Christian ethic and philosophy has crept into its pages. This is making me sound somewhat like Bill O’Reilly, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.**  
 
*I say “our” because I am a citizen of the USA. This is not intended to marginalize our international reader.  
 
**You can tell us apart because he is taller than me.  
 
Now, I am in no way trying to make the point that the USA is like Christianity or the church, though some people certainly act like it. Rather, I am just making an analogy between Biblical interpretation and Constitutional interpretation to try to show that the techniques applied are really quite similar. If you have a position on US politics, then by definition you possess the skills to take a theological position as well. The more informed, thought-out opinions that there are competing in the marketplace, the better off we will be. Unless you believe in state control of ideas. (This is a closeted shot at my liberal friends, though they will certainly disagree with the wording and the implication. They can blog over there on the left however they want. This blog occupies the chewy center and I still enjoy First Amendment rights.)  
 
You may have noticed by now that I have no concise outline nor clear thesis like many of my cogent, hard-hitting posts in the past. That’s OK; most politicians are the same way. As promised, I will try to put names and positions together. Again, I am no political expert and if I characterize someone wrongly, it is due to ignorance rather than malice. Feel free to correct me as the Spirit leads.  
 
POSITION ONE: DOCUMENT AS FIRM, ESTABLISHED FOUNDATION  
 
These people think that the Bible or the Constitution as written should be interpreted as literally and be followed as closely to the letter as reality allows. They don’t like extra things to be added in and certainly don’t want the harsher parts to be taken away. Their opponents label them as fundamentalists or Bible-thumpers, and they are likelier to tote a King James than another translation. They are mocked by outsiders as people you don’t have to take seriously, but they have some of the most devoted fanbases of anyone. I think of Ron Paul as a guy like this. He wants the Constitution to be literally obeyed and pretty much everything else to be tossed out. These ideas make everyone except for Thomas Jefferson uncomfortable, for one reason or another. I am trying to think of a theologian who fits this box, but I can’t really. Maybe those guys going around agitating for literal six-day creation as the ONLY way to interpret Genesis.  
 
I like this group quite a bit. My problem with them lies mainly with the reality that the Bible and the Constitution really aren’t as easy to interpret as we would like them to be. Cultural things from the Bible’s time (like covering one’s head in worship) are largely non-issues today, so how do we handle them? SImilarly, laws like those protecting citzens from quartering soldiers are somewhat antiquated to today’s reader whose only brush with soldiers is likely to be on the xBox. More nuance is often needed.  
 
POSITION TWO: DOCUMENT AS FOUNDATION, BUT WHAT ABOUT THESE THINGS…..  
 
This group finds the Bible or the Constitution as texts to be obeyed, but they open the door a bit wider for commentary from outside sources. These interpreters would allow that some of the New Testament is cultural and no longer binding, perhaps on the issue of women teaching in church or something like that. Similarly, Constitutional interpreters in this vein respect the Constitution but allow for tweaking. After all, it’s not 1776 any longer and our foreign policy might need an update. What worked in the day of the carrier pigeon might not function in the Beyond the Space Age in which we now live.* While these groups allow for tweaking, they never allow the text to be marginalized and most of the updates revolve around picturing the original authors in modern times and thinking about what they would say when faced with the problem.  
 
I think most of the Republican candidates fancy themselves in shoes much like these. Rick Perry probably qualifies. He wants to get back to basics and such and so, but hopes to offer in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants. Newt Gingrich calls himself a Reagan Conservative (by which I guess he hopes to score points in the same way that someone calling themselves a Jesus Christian would). However, he wants to put the judicial branch under accountability from the legislature. That’s not in the Constitution. And so on and on it goes.  
 
*This reminds me, a lot of people are freaking out that China has launched a space program with the stated goal of landing on the moon. They think that China will pass us in “leadership in space.” Uhhh, didn’t we do that in the SIXTIES? We beat them by FIFTY YEARS!  
 
On the theological side of things, I think John Piper ticks these boxes. Take his position on male leadership as an example. Though he argues that the man should be the head of the family (which aligns with the plain sense of the Biblical text), he doesn’t go so far as to argue that the entire marital structure at the time of Paul should be adopted by today’s Christians. You can agree or disagree with his conclusions, but you have to admit that he at least thinks* he is faithful to the text as it speaks in today’s society.  
 
*As an aside (and isn’t it all an aside around here?), one of my favorite books that I’ve read recently opened up with an analogy comparing Piper to a flat earther. It was awesome.  
 
Another person in this category is Mark Driscoll. He has often made a point of determining how to engage today’s culture with the gospel that he gleans from the pages of the Bible, not hiding away from the modern day. He, too, would try to obey the Bible as he interprets it for today, but make allowances outside of the literal words. Of course, there are varying degrees of elasticity among interpreters of this fashion, but I think that they have themselves on the right track.  
 
After all, if we are people under a rule of law, shouldn’t the law decide how we act rather than a group of people voting on something today? This begs the question, obviously, of why the law is better than modern opinion. Here the Scriptures and the Constitution must diverge: the former is an inspired document, the latter merely a human product. Therein lies a critical difference.  
 
POSITION THREE: DOCUMENT AS OUTDATED; IT NEEDS FRESHENING UP  
 
A position that is gaining much traction both in the political sphere and in the religous realm is that of reinventing the founding documents. These people have latched on to the rebuttal given above: why is an ancient document better than today’s thinking? Ancient science wasn’t better, why then was ancient religion or law? This group seeks to obtain the kernel of truth inherent in each document and then reinvent it in light of modern reality.  
 
Take Rob Bell as an example. Though Bell doesn’t throw out as much Scripture as many do, his work Velvet Elvis includes a chapter on binding and loosing. For him, these terms refer to the reinterpretaiton of sacred Scripture throughout time–a practice that in Bell’s mind Jesus gives his blessing to. Bell, then, is saying that while we still have the text of Scripture, our job as disciples is to interpret drastically different messages depending on one’s own day and own culture. Bell’s basic core around which his teaching revolves is that Jesus is a loving God. Everything else is basically debatable. Again, this is reductionistic, but it will give you a flavor for his arguments.  
 
In the same way, Barack Obama has talked about fundamentally changing America. He doesn’t mean a total reboot; he wants to keep much of what has made America great in his mind. He does, however, want there to be different policy on basically every level, revolving around a central truth that I am sure someone can enlighten me on. Just kidding. I would say basically it would be equal rights for all. Then, with this in mind, his policies try to see how that best is applicable to today’s world, with the specific words and limits in the Constitution not adhered to as firmly as some others might.  
 
This position has merit as well. For one, it unshackles today from the problems of yesterday. The texts weren’t written with our situation in mind but rather one which was quite different. Perhaps the better move is to then reinvent the text in light of our sitiuation today, as we understand it. The problem lies with who is making the decision–what if the modern person is wrong? Where is the outside accountability? Where are the checks and balances?  
 
Martin Luther is a good example of someone who saw that a certain set of rules and laws had become outdated. He started with one specific instance: the selling of indulgences. By the time he was done throwing things out, he had purged the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, the infallibility of the Pope and the councils, the books of the Apocrypha, and much much more. Looking back, much of Christianity thinks he was on the right track, but his work opened us up to some ridiculous, self-based lines of thinking. Such is the price paid for freedom of thought.  
 
POSITION FOUR: THAT DOCUMENT IS GOOD; SO IS THIS ONE  
 
I was going to write a paragraph about Mitt Romney, who is a Mormon, and how Mormonism attaches extra sacred texts to the Bible. I couldn’t think of a good way to do it without sounding really mean or really pandering. So there you go.  
 
Hopefully I have given you some food for thought about how you interpret the Bible and the laws of our land. I’d love to hear from you and how you might define your position on these issues. Have I left any out? Have I represented anyone unfairly? Do you find yourself interpreting the Bible one way and the Constitution another, or are your paradigms fairly parallel?  
 
As always, thanks for reading.  
 
PS: Yes, no pictures. Sorry. Trying something new.

Advertisements
2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Consiglio permalink
    January 7, 2012 1:43 am

    Gotta love Hermeneutics… Gotta love Wright : )

    • January 9, 2012 6:47 pm

      There’s likely not a good Republican candidate comparison for Wright. For this (despite this?) you’ve got to love him!

Share your thoughts:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: