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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Careful, Careful, My Brethren

Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.--James 3:1
The James Frey controversy revealed "a new understanding of truth." When Frey's fabrications were revealed, some had the audacity to claim the inaccuracies actually helped him tell the story more truthfully.

This postmodern approach to truth has also crept into hermeneutics. Just as "higher critiques" of yesteryear claimed they still believed the Bible to be inspired, despite claiming it was inaccurate regarding science/history, these interpreters claim the passage to be teaching truth, even if the details cannot be trusted. Therefore, they avow orthodoxy (sometimes) but deny the accuracy of the passages used to defend the doctrines. These pastors play fast and loose with the Text, conforming it to their will, rather than vice versa.

This trend is easy to spot (if one is willing to ask difficult questions). When one begins to investigate their theories, nailing them down on specific texts, it becomes obvious that they are not practicing a Biblical hermeneutic.

Well, it would be easy if not for the secondary trend. When questioned, or especially when you point out the inconsistency of their theories/postulations/speculations/conjectures/guesses, they retort:

But, You Misunderstood Me.

I can handle hearing this phrase from time to time, but the regular barrage of supposed misunderstanding does become problematic. In my youth, I would play fast and loose with my words, and when called on it, I would reply with the similar retort: I was just kidding. It seemed the perfect alibi. I could make unsubstantiated claims. I could make outlandish boasts. I could take unprovoked stabs at others. Then, just as a person was going to lay blame on me, I could shift the focus...claiming they missed my humorous attempt. It really was perfect--until I read:
Like a madman shooting firebrands or deadly arrows is a man who deceives his neighbor and says, "I was only joking!"--Proverbs 26:18-19
I read that passage and was broken. I had not invented a clever technique to allude investigation, I had become a madman. My ways had to change immediately.

Likewise, an overused barrage of I've been misunderstood! is problematic for the following reasons:

1. It assumes no responsibility.--Stated in a passive tone, a person is still exonerated from any responsibility. They are not claiming I misspoke, thus assuming responsibility. Often times, when cornered on loose communication, the person will claim the problem really lies in the hearers listening skills. Rather than listening to what I meant to say, the person only examined what I actually said. Therefore, the speaker is not responsible to clear the air, but is left to do so, if they choose. And even clearing the air does not become their responsibility since they did not err. Any clarification is condescendence--for your sake, since you misunderstood in the first place.

2. Or, it's generally lazy. Now, I can incorrectly turn a phrase like anyone. (I will forever regret the time I used the word forthright instead of forthcoming with a beloved friend...thus creating an unintentional accusation.) Sometimes, we have to confess when we misspeak. However, the teacher/preacher should never be comfortable with this. I've yet to meet the perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well (James 3:2). James says so himself, when he stated: For we all stumble in many ways. However, this does not mean we will not be judged more strictly.

When I exchanged forthcoming with forthright I did damage to a quality relationship. A simple, I misspoke was not enough. Though my friend was very gracious with me, the misunderstanding from my error caused some pain. As we worked through my mistake, I had to speak slowly and with much more precision (not for his sake...for mine). I sought to restore our relationship and never again use the words forthcoming and forthright without being deliberate. (In fact, I don't know that I'll use either term in front of this person ever again.)

Just this week, I was listening to an interview of NT Wright by a student of Southern Seminary. Wright was asked about his endorsement of Steve Chalke's book despite Chalke's disaster quote on the penal substitution of Christ. In Wright's explanation, he explained that Chalke simply lacked clarity in speech, and that this is understandable--he works with youth, isn't well trained and speaks with emotion. There was no hint of responsibility for Chalke, we should all just be understanding that he didn't mean what he said. Such a perspective does not seem to line up with Scripture.

If we find ourselves too often saying, "I misspoke," "I didn't mean what I said," or "I said that wrong" perhaps we need to either quit speaking...or seriously adjust the way we do.

3. It eliminates the capacity for tolerance. Not the hold-hands-ignore-our-differences-while-listening-to-Barry-White-singing-Kumbaya-style tolerance, but the original meaning for tolerance. (tolerance: a fair, objective, and permissive attitude toward opinions and practices that differ from one's own.) When you disagree with someone, and they simply say you misunderstood them, how do you work through the disagreement?

Whether arrogance, naiveté or an unwelcomed product of our postmodern society, the idea that someone might actually disagree with an opinion seems incalculable. Therefore, we cannot deal with our differences, discussing the texts, nuance and understanding. Instead, we are left to assume it is an issue of communication, and quite often are even encouraged to simply drop the matter--trusting that though it may seem otherwise, we're probably on the same page.

Telling a person they misunderstood you, rather than telling them you think they are wrong, certainly seems like a softer answer...but it is not genuine tolerance. And ultimately, the two cannot accept their differences, because they are to act like there is not difference at all. And if we ignore differences, it's not tolerance, it's neglect. And relationships (the supposed "Holy Grail" of this new approach) do not survive well in neglect. Working through disagreement may be some heavy lifting...but heavy lifting strengthens.

Therefore, be careful. For those considering teaching the Word, and for those who do teach, we should consider the stern warning of greater judgement. We should be setting the example for the Body by guarding our words closely and stating things as clearly as possible. (Certainly, when pastors engage in a theological "conversation," saying You've misunderstood me! should be at an absolute minimum.) The pastor/teacher should seek to be as clear, direct and accurate as possible.

For it's not just other people who are listening.


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