Thursday, February 15, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Reading the Bible through a Political Filter

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter Two: How to Deal with the Bible
(Section Three: Reading the Bible through a Political Filter)

Now a quick look at political filters. Like most steps to Christian misery, this is pretty easy. In our hyper-politicized world, most of us already think in political terms about any issue that might arise. We can classify anything that confronts us as “liberal” or “conservative,” “left” or “right.” This easy categorization is a great and helpful trait, because it enables us to see everything in the harsh light of black-and-white terms. And the wonderful thing about seeing things in black and white is that you can be absolutely certain that you are right, and that everyone else is wrong. And there’s something comforting to that.
This politicization can even extend to Christian theology. In some circles, even the slightest hint of doubt about the most debated and peripheral of doctrines can immediately (and helpfully!) label someone as “too liberal.” Meanwhile, in other circles, even toeing the line of suggesting that a person’s identity might not be entirely definable by their own whims is enough to handily classify someone as being “too conservative.”
            It’s pretty easy to do this to the Bible, too. Let me throw out a random list of doctrines, any one of which might claim some kind of biblical support (to a greater or lesser degree), and let’s see if you can correctly identify them as liberal or conservative. Just try to imagine which one of the major parties you might hear plugging each of the following principles. (Please note: the author makes no claim to believe or disbelieve any of the following; I simply use them here to illustrate how easy it is for someone to liberalize or conservativize the Bible, according to their taste. Obviously, I only believe the doctrines below that are truly biblical and sensible, just like you.)
(1)   One of our main jobs as human beings is to tend to the environment and care for God’s created order, so environmentalism should be a major concern of Christian political activity (Gen. 2:15).
(2)   The unborn are living human beings, each one intentionally created by a loving God, so abortion should not be legal (Psalm 139:13-16).
(3)   You should love all immigrants, treat them like native-born citizens, and actively offer all the help and resources they might require (Lev. 19:33-34; Deut. 10:18-19; 14:28-29).
(4)   Marriage is a sacred institution originally intended for the union of a man and a woman, and so it is not within the purview of human governments to rewrite the meaning of marriage (Gen. 2:22-24).
(5)   Redistributive socialism is an acceptable method of organizing a Christian society (Acts 2:44-45).
(6)   Government’s rightful place is in securing order and justice, but it has overstepped its bounds if its legislation impinges on an individual’s freedom to obey God (Rom. 13:1-7, Acts 4:18-20).
(7)   God cares deeply about the plight of the poor, so the alleviation of poverty ought to be one of the leading concerns of Christians’ engagement in political life (Psalm 12:5, James 2:5).
(8)   Homosexuality is a symptom of the deep way that human society has been affected by our common sinfulness, and is not something to be celebrated (Rom. 1:21-2:1).
(9)   Christians should love their enemies, and are commanded not even to resist an evil person through the use of force, so they should not make the right to possess weapons a part of their political platform (Matt. 5:39).
(10)   Appropriate sexual behavior is a matter of divine law, not personal taste, social convention, or human legal traditions (1 Cor. 6:12-20).
Pretty easy, right? In our current American political climate, all the odd numbered teachings are usually trumpeted by one political camp, and all the evens by another. You’ll find some crossover here and there, but the main talking-points of the parties generally fall squarely along those odd/even lines. As I’m sure you must have realized as you worked through the list, the set of numbers that you already agree with are clearly the correct interpretations of Scripture, which means that the other set of numbers must be spurious readings of the holy text. After all, who would be wild enough to suggest that all of these biblical-political assertions might have some claim to validity? That would render our black-and-white political platforms ridiculous. And one thing we can be sure of is that our American political life is never shortsighted, narrow, or ridiculous.
Since we’re already so good at sorting everything we see into political categories and ignoring the parts we don’t agree with, this kind of political filter is one of the most helpful ways of reading the Bible. It prevents Scripture from challenging our preconceived ideas and settled positions, ensuring that we can remain safely ensconced in our cocoon of happy moral certainty.
Ironically, this will actually maximize your Christian misery. This is because, by using this method, you are essentially muting the possibility of the Holy Spirit speaking to you about areas where you could grow, where you could deepen your faith, understanding, and love for those with differing opinions. Such growth in compassion and depth of perception has, in my humble experience, led to a diminishment in the experience of the miserable life.
However, if you end up going down the dark road toward letting Scripture shape your politics (rather than the reverse), you can sometimes still save your misery by giving up in the name of relativism. This helpful tactic, unlike the black-and-white perspective we talked about earlier, is unwilling to see any gradations or context at all, and insists on seeing all issues in a uniform shade of gray.
Perhaps, as you looked over the list of possible biblical doctrines above, you wanted to throw up your hands and say, “Well, then if all of this is in the Bible, then we can’t know anything for sure! Let’s just throw in the towel on politics and biblical certainty!” If that was your impulse, then run with it. If you can convince yourself that everything is relative, and that nothing is certain, then you have once again found an easy way to slip into that sweet spot of not having to stretch your spiritual and intellectual imagination in ways that might tend towards personal growth.
Whatever you do, absolutely do not enter into dialogue with Christians who may have differing perspectives from you. It’s just a bad idea. You already know that you have everything right; so you don’t need to listen to them. The more you can keep yourself in the comfort zone of absolute moral certainty (or, if you’re so inclined, absolute moral relativism), the more you’ll be able to gloss over things in Scripture that you might not want to think about, and the more you’ll be able to tune out the nagging voice of the Holy Spirit. On the road of Christian misery, that’s the fast lane to success.
A Final (but Dangerous) Method
            If all of the above strategies for limiting the Bible’s capacity to affect your misery end up not working for you, there’s one last recourse. It’s simple, but not many people can do it successfully: you could study the Bible in all of its depth, and then just not do what it asks you to do. It takes some perseverance, but that road will definitely maximize your Christian misery. Knowing the will of God, and then willfully ignoring it—it takes a good deal of guts and a fundamental absence of wisdom—but if you can do it, you’ll be miserable for sure.