I know what you need.

I’ve been thinking recently about evangelism. They haven’t been comfortable thoughts.

Evangelism weirds me out. I can’t get comfortable with the idea of going up to random people and telling them, “I know what you need [spoiler: it’s Jesus].” As a matter of fact, I don’t know what you need. I barely, if ever, know what I need. And people who are sure, without knowing me well, that they know what I need—church people, health care people, other people’s mothers—tend to be disastrously wrong, and to piss me off correspondingly.

A story: I was in the psych ward, again. I was sitting in the dining room, eating styrofoamy hospital ice cream and having a conversation with another patient about meds: bitching about prescribers, swapping side-effect horror stories, and sharing what has actually worked. This kind of low-key, repetitive insider bonding takes up a large percentage of one’s time on an inpatient unit, and forms a significant part of the healing process. For me, though, no meds had worked, and so I was telling my friend how my psychiatrist and I had decided to stop all my medications, and what a positive decision that had been for me. At this point a nearby staff member (a young edwardian-mustache-and-pocket-watch hipster) who’d been in the room but not part of the conversation interjected. “You know,” he said in a let-me-instruct-you tone, “A lot of psychiatric medications take a very long time to get into your system and take effect. So if you’re expecting them to start helping right away, you might be disappointed. You should make sure to wait a couple of months before you discontinue a medication.” Mental health crises tend to lower my bullshit tolerance dramatically, so instead of a polite “thank you,” I said bluntly, “Yeah. I know. After fifteen or so different medications, I did actually figure that out.”
The next day I pulled Mustache Dude aside and told him that it was patronizing, offputting, and unhelpful for him to barge into our conversation with his unneeded “advice.” I told him that it had already been heartbreaking for me to have my hopes for aid dashed again and again as one after another medication failed, without his implying that it was my own fault. I told him (maybe not in so many words) that his bedside manner needed work if he was going to be successful in mental health care. He apologized, but it was clear that he didn’t really understand what he had done wrong, wasn’t going to reflect deeply on it, and was simply humoring me. I let it go.

I think what Mustache Dude did here is sort of what we do with church, a lot of the time. We barge into other people’s lives without bothering to understand the context. “I know what you need: Jesus!” Never mind that it’s impossible to live in America today and not have Jesus (or something that gets called Jesus) be part of your consciousness whether you will or no. Never mind that, for so many people, faith communities have been loci of pain, shame, neglect, or hypocrisy, and asking them to come to church with you might well be asking them to relive trauma. Never mind that plenty of atheists and agnostics would say that they are quite happy and fulfilled already; that there isn’t actually a God-shaped hole in their lives, thank you all the same.

And yet–

And yet, when things in my life bring me great joy, I want those things for others; and I am sure that this urge to share what is good is itself a great good. And yet, Christians are called, by scripture and tradition, to evangelize, whatever that means. Euangelion, the Gospel, the good news. How do I take that seriously? How do I share the things that make my life good while still respecting other peoples’ autonomy and ability to know what is best for themselves? For me, this is part of a larger question: How do I reconcile ways that the church has been such a force for good in my life (and in the lives of so many) with the ways in which it has been such a cause of suffering? Books on what made the early Church successful, posts on earning the right to invite people to church, all the brass tacks that I originally set out to talk about here, they all come down to this: how do I–how dare I–invite others into this complicated relationship? How do I know whether it is what they need?

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Sin, Pollution, and Samaritans

So here’s something that blew my little Sunday-school-trained mind* as an undergrad. Take the Good Samaritan story, Luke 10:25-37. The priest and the Levite see the man dying in a ditch and pass by on the other side; the Samaritan takes care of him. Who is the neighbor? The one who takes care of him. Great.

Fact number one: I didn’t know who the Samaritans were until I was 14 or 15.

Fact number two: I didn’t know who the Levites were until I was in college.

It’s not as though there was no explanation at all. I had some vague idea that the Samaritans were usually crooks and scoundrels. I’m pretty sure I thought that, since the priests were obviously the people in charge of the temple/religion, the Levites must be the people in charge of the government. (I mean, it makes sense, right?) At some point along the line I learned that the Samaritans were a competing religious group descended from the people who were left behind in Israel during the Babylonian Exile, whose center of worship was not Jerusalem but Mount Gerizim to the north, and that the Levites were (by this time) temple officiants and assistants to the priests. So that was some progress.

Then I hit the lecture on ritual purity and the difference between pollution and sin in my undergraduate Israelite Religion course. And, as I said, my mind was blown

There are lots of ways to become impure in ancient Israel. Some of them you can avoid; some of them you can’t. You can probably, for example, avoid picking up a dead lizard. If you’re lucky, you’ll avoid having mold grow in patches on the walls of your house—but that’s not really under your control. If you’re a woman, you can’t avoid menstruating. If you’re married, you can’t really avoid having sex. Some things you’re required to do: bury your parents, for example. Any of these things will make you unclean. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re sinful or wicked, or that it’s a bad thing to be a woman or to have just had sex or just moved that cow that died in your backyard—they just put you in a position where it’s dangerous to approach God, and so you have to perform the appropriate rituals before you can come to the temple. The priests and the Levites, who are closer to the divine presence in the temple and mediate between God and the people, must live up to accordingly more stringent standards while they’re doing their jobs. Some aspects of the sacrificial system have to do with ethical considerations, but some don’t, and it isn’t always clear on which is which. (It doesn’t help that prophets use the language of impurity as a metaphor to talk about the moral defilement of Israel.)

So, tearing ourselves with reluctance away from Leviticus and getting back to the New Testament: The point isn’t that the priest and the Levite were terrible, cold-hearted people who saw a dying man and said, “So long, sucker.” The man was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, no? Meaning—as I understand it—that they were probably on their way back to Jerusalem and back to service in the temple, and here’s this dead or dying guy on the road. If they help him, they’ll become impure—and then they’ll have to wait, and sacrifice, and so forth, and they decide that their role in the Temple is more important than their duty toward their fellows. The story’s still about helping people who need it, but it’s really a much more subtle thing. In prizing care for those in trouble over adherence to ritual norms, Luke’s Jesus is putting himself in the role of an Israelite prophet, and situating himself within a dialogue on the role of ritual and sacrifice in Israel’s relationship with God that goes back to some of the earliest Biblical texts.

*I’m not denigrating Sunday school as such. Much.

Context and Meaning

So Carmen responded to my post on Esther with the following:

But the deeper issue here is something I’ve thought about a lot as a witness to your career. What intimidates me most about the Old Testament is that it seems like you have to know *a lot* of history in order to understand its meaning properly (or even at all). (I would definitely say that’s true of the NT, but it’s simply more familiar to Christians, so learning the history seems less insurmountable). And even though I’ve attempted, my knowledge of OT history is woeful. I simply can’t learn everything you learn, so I remain intimidated by and ignorant of the OT–this is not a viable option, so how do I do a book like Esther justice?

To which I replied:

This is a really, really tough question for me. I believe two things pretty strongly: 1) Meaning depends on context. So you have to take the contexts of the biblical texts into account when you’re trying to figure out their meaning. 2) Everyone should be “allowed” to approach/deal with biblical texts. But I don’t quite know how to reconcile those.

And then I started to write a further comment, only to find it ballooning rapidly out of control (I start to sense a theme…). So I’m bringing it up here in a post all its own.

In terms of attaining a “proper” understanding of a text:

Yes, meaning depends on context. But each text has more than one context. There’s the context within which it was written—which I do think deserves a certain privileged status—but there’s also the context within which it is read. I do believe that a text actually means something different when it is read within a Christian context vs. a Jewish context vs. an academic context vs., I don’t know, an angry Marxist college student context.

This is the real challenge for historians: we can’t actually get back to the way the earliest readers would have experienced the text. We cannot truly access the world in which they lived. We can try, and we should try; but there is always a gulf there, and we know it. So what are we actually doing when we do history? In some ways, this is the challenge also for people of faith, as well: how do we reconcile the world we live in with the stories that we as a community call foundational? The way I am thinking about it at this moment (ask me tomorrow and you might get a different answer) is as a conversation. We as historians, perhaps, are using the Bible to talk with ancient cultures about who they are; perhaps we, as people of faith, are talking with ancient cultures about who we are. I don’t know whether that makes sense. I’m trying it out.

But then why do I believe so strongly that the way I read the text is better than the way (just to pick on them, but not to say that they’re the only people who read the Bible from an ahistorical perspective) fundamentalist Christians read it? This is also a troubling thought for me. If there are alternative truths and many meanings to be found within a text depending on where you’re standing, how can I possibly say that some readings are better than others? Why do I believe that there’s a core of meaning that remains the same, although we can only imperfectly reach it? In other words, why am I not a poststructuralist? (Caveat: I may be completely misunderstanding what poststructuralism is.)

I think that, for me, it has to do with the honesty with which one engages with the text. If I take this engagement as a conversation, then both sides have to be allowed to speak. My voice, my experiences, my needs count. But so do those of the original authors. Maybe I have the privilege of participating in the creation of meaning; but I don’t have the privilege of ignoring what my interlocutor says.

So yeah, it’s important to learn something about the context in which the Bible was written. We have to make assumptions about that context, no matter how much or little we know, and we’ll get closer to that core of meaning the more we know with whom we’re speaking. But that doesn’t mean I have any more of a right to the Bible than you do, or any less (this is nice to think about) than my teachers, who know so much more than I do and almost certainly more than I ever will. Compared with the impossible vastness of what remains to be known, we’re basically all in the same boat.

Finally, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is joy. For me, reading the Bible is a joy. Not all the time—I mean, no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to get excited about royal succession and the breakdown of the United Monarchy. But I study this entirely for the joy I find in it, and because the harder I look at a text the more fun it gets. (I’m looking at you, Leviticus.) It’s not like I’m going through a decade (or more) of grad school for the money or the prestige—for me the academic life is and has to be driven by joy. So I guess I’m saying that it really saddens me to see you feeling anxious and intimidated and burdened by the texts. I don’t think that’s the point at all. Honestly, I don’t think you have any obligation to read the Bible. If it doesn’t bring you joy, if it doesn’t teach you wonder, if it’s not a story that becomes part of who you are, why do you need it? How can it possibly make you a better Christian?