Thursday, October 12, 2006

Rethinking the term "Conservative"

I've always thought myself to be, and still do, a conservative Christian. I believe the Bible from cover to cover (including the maps!) and have no problem at all saying it's without error and perfect in it's original form. But I can't tell you how many times I've given an opinion and someone gives me that "you liberal!" look. Even though you might expect that I'd run from the conservative label given all my frustrations with the conservative church, I find no desire to give up the "conservative" tag.

But something about that word "conservative" has never set right with me, and I think I've finally figured out what it is. Most conservative evangelical Christians aren't conservative at all. They are conservative on a scale marked and measured by secular and denominational politics for sure, but the real nature of conservativism is not there.

Conservative, of course, has its base in the word "conserve," but conserve what? I find that for most evangelical Christians, it is either about conserving denominational interpretive traditions, or Republican values, or simply a literal reading of the Bible.

But for me, what I seek to "conserve" is the authorial intention of the biblical text. That is, the ultimate path to biblical truth, for me, comes in the question, "What did the biblical author, inspired by God, intend to say and how did he choose to say it?" Sounds simple enough, I know, but take Jonah for instance. Most of us say that a conservative believes Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and liberals do not. But that's an effort to conserve literalism. But is it conservative to conserve literalism if, perhaps, the author intented symbolism? No. That's just bad interpretation.

Now for me, the jury is still out on whether or not Jonah is a literal or symbolic story. But I do know this. The author intentionally uses hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point) throughout the story. It took three days for Jonah to march around the city where a king ruled. Then Jonah preaches a one minute sermon and the most evil nation that ever walked the face of the earth suddenly repents all at once.

Here's what we know. It only takes a few hours to walk around the city. There was no king of Ninevah. No historical records exist showing that the Assyrians ever had any Jewish conversion of any size. And we know beyond a shadow of any doubt that no preacher has ever preached a one minute sermon!

So, is it "liberal" to point these things out? Is it "conservative" to insist that Jonah is literal and do whatever it takes to explain away these issues? Or is it better for us to ponder these issues and ask a simple question, "What is the author trying to do with this story?" Then we can explore some options. Maybe it's a parable. Parables often use exaggerated details to make a point. Jesus used these fictional stories to explain undeniable truths all the time! So can't an Old Testament writer do the same? Or it could be an alleghory, or an edited composition of several sources or stories woven together. Or maybe it is historical. Perhaps it is a fictional type of story based on an historical figure (Jesus did this too - i.e. The Rich Man and Lazarus).

What I'm saying is this. If the author intented this to be literal and we take it figuratively because we can't find it in ourselves to believe in divine miracles, then we are liberals. But if the author intended to write a parable, and we turn it into a literal story that must be accepted as literal before it can be true, then haven't we become liberals there too, making the text what we want it to be and not what God wants it to be?

Most of our hyper-literalism comes from our reaction to those who have turned any story they feel uncomfortable with into a symbolic story. When I speak to someone about symbolism, I invariably hear, How long before you say the resurrection didn't happen?" But the fact is the literary form known as "gospel" is a form that uses historical and literal language to make the point. So I'm assuming that if a writer chose a literal form, we must interpret it literally to receive the truth. Likewise, if the writer chooses a symbolic form (like "apocalypse" in Revelation, poetry in Psalms, etc.), then we interpret it symbolically. True conservatives let the text and style speak about what's literal and what's not literal. We must avoide the "all symbolic" or "all literal" extremes.

I would just love to find a few "conservative" Christian friends who are willing to open the text with me and ask, "What is the author trying to say and how is he trying to say it" and then be willing to go wherever that discussion leads. How refreshing that would be rather than someone pulling out their denominational charts and comparing our stated answers with the latest version of the Baptist Faith and Message and judging your "correctness" by it.

Well, enough of that. Just don't forget these two important things. 1) The message of Jonah is simply that God will forgive anyone of anything if they repent. You get that truth whether it's historical or a parable. And 2) every single author of the Bible is dead. So approach the text with great humility!


Blogger RevDave said...

One more word about the form "gospel." While it is a historical, literal form, it is not necessarily a chronoligical form. The writer has freedom to rearrange the order of events to make his point. This is important, because some folks say Jesus cleansed the temple twice, because it's at the end of one gospel and the beginning of another. But how rich our Bible study would be if we explored the question, "Why did John put it right up front and Luke place it in the last week of Jesus' life?"

11:12 PM  

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