I hear all the time in United Methodism that our seemingly inevitable march toward schism is caused or at least significantly hastened by the fact that we don’t all read scripture in the same way. But very rarely does anyone offer a further comment on how any particular group does or ought to read it. For a long time now I have desired to articulate how I read scripture, both to clarify my own understanding and to offer something constructive to the conversation at large. What I am posting now feels deeply inadequate as a viable alternative means of reading, but I don’t know when or if I’ll ever have the time to research and say what really needs to be said. I feel compelled at this point in time to at least offer some sense of the framework out of which I seek to make sense of faith and truth and life.
For lack of a better descriptive term, I would name my primary lens of engagement as a thematic reading of scripture. Thematic engagement is neither literal nor figurative, neither obsessed with verses nor limited to vague impressions. Thematic engagement is a challenge to explore the stories that wrote us in such a way that we can most faithfully write out the next chapter in the light of God’s continued love and action in the world.
At the moment, I would offer these assumptions as the foundation upon which thematic reading is possible.
- A thematic reading values ‘why’ over ‘how’ over ‘what,’ consistent themes over specific verses, storied illustrations over propositional truths, contextual correctives over eternal specifics, and communal life over objective argument.
- Context is the most basic unit of truth. We usually read stories to get down to the nugget of truth within. But truth is only truth in the context of the story in which it is told. The process of thematic reading does not extract a final “objective” meaning of any word or concept but assumes truth is only possible within the actual stories that give birth to meaning within the communities that remember and tell those stories. This approach is the operative framework of proverbs, in which nuggets of truth require an understanding of context in order to know which proverb applies and how.
- Who illustrates a theme and how often it arises are proportional to how serious and central that theme is for understanding the point and purpose of scripture. As Christians, the themes most clearly articulated and fulfilled by Jesus take precedence, but are not intelligible apart from the whole.
- The entire Bible is an exploration of who counts as the family of God and what are the implications for faith and life. Thematic reading is an invitation and attempt to further explore those implications for our own life and future. The ethics of thematic reading do not attempt to take any concept or idea out of scripture but to shape our habits and choices by our identity in relation to the family of God and the implications thereof.
- The Bible is to be read altogether or not at all. There are enough words and stories in scripture such that we can find a verse or two that justifies almost anything if read in isolation. Thematic reading assumes that we cannot ever divorce a single word, command, or story from the rest of scripture. When there is tension between the meaning or implication of two scriptures, we gain more from leaning into that tension than we do if the tension can be resolved. A simple example is the difference between the sermon on the mount in Matthew and the sermon on the plain in Luke. We could assume Jesus just preached two similar sermons in different places but it is more instructive to refuse streamlining into one simple story and instead learn from the nuances or differences each author chooses to incorporate.
- The questions asked and answered by the Bible are far more significant, central, meaningful, determinative, and crucial than the questions we bring to the text. It is tempting to think the Bible can answer any possible question we might have about life and faith, but the more we stray from the concerns of the Bible itself, the more likely we are to justify what we already believed than to be challenged and changed by God.
Reading with the above assumptions in mind, the biblical themes I find most significant and important are found below (keeping in mind that this list is extremely tentative and that any concept is intended as a way to point back to scripture rather than be meaningful apart from it). The main reasons I haven’t made this post until now are that 1) I hope one day to read through the Bible with an eye toward indexing the full list of stories and verses in which these themes find their coherence and meaning, and 2) there are plenty of other major themes that I would consider essential and are certainly worthy of much more engagement; but I have no idea when/if I’ll have time to tease out the meaning of those themes or their relation to those below. For now, this list will have to do.
- Before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Each and every one of us. Each and every part of us. Though our discussions of sin and holiness usually start with notions of right or wrong thoughts/actions and the consequences thereof, the bible begins with the assumption of the love and relationship for which God created us. Anything about sin, holiness, forgiveness, community, identity, duty, morality, etc. is only intelligible or significant as it relates to the relationship for which we are created and the prevenient grace of God at work to restore that relationship even before we have any awareness of or input in the process.
- Power is kenotic. Philippians 2:1-11 most clearly and concisely articulates the nature of real power in the world. Power is born through humility and self giving, not military, political, or physical strength. Ultimately, the vulnerability of God is the power to transform everything. [The near sacrifice of Isaac, John 3:14, 2nd Corinthians 12:9]
- The wrong people tell the right story. While we often look to people with the right level of authority, credentials, or knowledge, biblical truth often finds expression only through the most unexpected character in the story. Thus, the widow with two copper coins is lifted above the rich. The good samaritan is lifted above the religious leaders. The women are the first to preach the resurrection, not the disciples. Scripture constantly upends our expectations about power and authority by choosing the weak over the strong, the outsider over insider, those who know nothing over those who think they run the world. [Luke 7:36-50, Rahab]
- Us for the sake of all. The concept of election or chosenness is essential to the Bible but deeply misunderstood. There is an insider and outsider, but those chosen are chosen for responsibility, not privilege. To become part of the inside crowd is to accept the call to share the gifts of chosenness with the rest of the world. The more we receive, the more those blessings necessarily overflow. The more set apart, more holy, we become, the more we necessarily participate in God’s work to heal the world. [Jonah, Jesus’ consistent rebuke of the insider and embrace of the outsider, Romans 2]
- The goal is to learn how to love right, not to attain the right words and beliefs. We often treat faith like it’s a contest to see if we can create the best arguments or proofs to convince minds about Jesus. But nothing good happens when those words and arguments become the goal rather than being an attempt at articulating the experience of following Jesus. The embrace of community and the embodiment of God’s love always comes before rational understanding or objective truth.
- To live right is to love as God loves, not to create a list of dos and don’ts. When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he said love God and love neighbor; on these two commandments rest all the law and prophets. Like healing on the Sabbath, the corrective offered in Galatians, or Paul’s discussion of whether or not to eat meat sacrificed to idols, the point of moral imperatives was never about getting right the practical, specific, objective list of things to do and not do. Without referencing specific action, we cannot illustrate the shape of love; but love is who God is and actions either reproduce and/or witness to the love God is or they don’t. Every list we create is tentative and time bound at best. [Micah 6:6-8, Romans 8:1-11]
- Salvation is not “get me saved,” it is “participate in God’s work to love and transform the whole world.” Recentering the work of the church on community formation rather than individual guilt and forgiveness provides the foundation upon which we can begin to say why the church exists and how we ought to live in service to that broader mission.
- Scar born healing. Someone once said scars are not a sign of injury, scars are a sign of healing. The type of healing witnessed in scripture is one in which God does not throw away the old and broken body; God renews, heals, and transforms what is already present. In our disposable culture of shame and isolation, this may be the single most radical corrective offered by scripture. [John 20, Ezekiel 37]
- There is no if in the love of God. Deuteronomy is notable for its repetition of an if then formula. Roughly, if you are faithful, God will bless you. But even the story arc undermines its own formula as the people are not faithful but God remains faithful anyway. From creation on, there is always a hint of expectation that God will follow the if, then logic. But no matter how often or how deeply we are unfaithful, God remains steadfast, ultimately showing in the cross that there is no if in the love of God.
- God breaks out of every box. God’s people constantly think they have figured out the nature and shape of following God. But God always breaks outside of every box the people think is right. No matter how angry the insider becomes or how much God challenges preconceptions, God keeps pushing. [Jonah, Zaccheus, Peter and Cornelius, Ruth, Ethiopian Eunuch, Luke 4:25-30]
- Freedom from is freedom for. Freedom is not the lack of any possible thing to constrain our choice or desire. Freedom is from shame and fear and brokenness. Freedom is for overflowing the love that God first had for us.
- Abundance in the face of scarcity. The world implies all the time that we are in competition for scarce resources and power. In the Bible, God is the source of an abundance of blessing and there is always more than enough. [John 6:1-14 (loaves and fish), Matthew 15:21-28, Manna in the Wilderness]
I am confident that the application of these themes to our present divide in the UMC is not self evident. To a significant extent, my argument hinges on the notion that the way we engage in the conversation about what sin is and how to respond to it is fundamentally and hopelessly flawed. That reality means I cannot offer a simple point by point acceptance or rebuttal of the more common arguments. But I feel compelled to at least offer some hint as to how the way I read the Bible informs my understanding of how to live and how to move forward. Again recognizing the insufficiency of what I am able to say coherently at this moment, I’d offer these several contributions to the conversation related to a few of the themes above.
- With respect to theme 1 above, conversations regarding human sexuality never meaningfully grapple with the nature of prevenient and unconditional love. The first question in evaluating action is usually something like, “is this a sin or not?” The only first question worth asking for Christians is something like, “what is the shape and nature of the love that God has for us.” And the second is like it, “how is that love reflected (or not) in our relationships?” Sin is a secondary concept that can only be defined to the extent that words or actions break the covenantal love for which we are created. Only as it relates to the potential for breaking the love that God is does it even make sense to explore the extent to which same gender loving persons are capable of living into the institution of marriage. It is often argued that to expand our definition of marriage is to dilute the meaning and significance of the marriage relationship. However, I would argue that we do great damage to the institution of marriage through our unwillingness to wrestle with the extent to which the institution is now defined more by specific practices and traditions than by an attempt to witness and embody the kind of love God is. We should always define our practices primarily by the extent to which they attempt to live into the bigger love of God and only secondarily and if necessary by the extent to which those practices fit neatly into a traditional taxonomy of sin and righteousness. To guide our future actions more by historical practices than by God’s prevenient love is necessarily to dilute and distract from our attempts at more faithful living; to do so reproduces the error corrected in Mark 2:23-28 regarding work on the sabbath.
- With respect to theme 2 above, every authoritative moral pronouncement from the church presumes and reinforces a distinct hierarchical posture – the church is atop that hierarchy and below are those who break from that authority or wish to challenge the church’s moral teaching from within. Kenosis implies that those with greater power and authority must act in such a way that the less powerful or more marginalized people are empowered in some concrete way. That is not to say sin cannot be called out but, building on #1, the result of calling out sin ought to be a demonstrably more “as we are meant to live” life. The logic of saying don’t steal, for instance, seeks to at least root out envy and to create the ability for people to trust one another more fully. Thus, saying don’t steal concretely and demonstrably creates certain conditions for a better life. If those conditions are counterbalanced by the need to steal so as to meet basic needs, a different calculus is required by those in positions of power to understand the effects of our prohibitions and punishments, as well as the culture we have created in which stealing could make sense as an option in the first place. To determine how we ought to understand and respond requires us to assess whether our assertions of authority are empowering healthier lives and relationships. To faithfully articulate a stance on same sex marriage requires us to consider the effects of prohibition upon same gender loving persons. Assuming exertions of power ought to make lives and relationships better is not some sort of incidental or relativistic consideration – that assumption seems to be one of the most consistent means of understanding how and why expectations for how to live change throughout scripture. To be sure, sometimes requiring what is right does not result in obvious and direct benefits. But if we cannot see clear evidence that lives and relationships are made better by an exercise of power and authority, we must be extremely cautious and wary about whether we have drawn the right line in the right place in the sand.
- With respect to themes 5 and 6 above, the point of Christian faith is not to get the right wording of beliefs onto a page or to make the right list of actions and prohibitions – the point of word and action is to experience and embody the love and grace of God. When seeking to understand the nature and acceptability of certain forms of relationship, we must therefore consider vital characteristics of that relationship like consent, intimacy, vulnerability, trust, empowerment, teamwork, attachment, mutuality, authenticity, commitment, public accountability, personal growth, sacrificiality, and respect. If gender is the only criteria we are capable of evaluating with regard to the validity of a potential marriage, then we have already gone hopelessly wrong, both in terms of what marriages we prohibit and in terms of the marriages we already foster and condone.
- With respect to themes 9 and 10, it baffles me how often more conservative voices imply that the church’s continued adherence to its current understanding of marriage is an issue upon which the possibility of a faithful and effective church rises and falls. It sounds to me like we are concerned that if we get our understanding of marriage wrong, we will hopelessly break the church and hopelessly/uniquely undercut its ministry. But there is no ‘if’ in the love of God. One of the most common themes in scripture is the breaking of every box that God’s people thought contained a faithful, holy, Godly life. Even if we get it wrong by changing the definition of marriage, God will still be faithful and will still overcome all our failures – just like God has always done from the beginning. We must operate from an assumption that we will get most things at least partly wrong most of the time. To start with that assumption requires that we be extremely cautious about what we are willing to consider essential and why we would do so.