All Other Ground

“On Christ the solid rock I stand,” the old hymn says. “All other ground is sinking sand / All other ground is sinking sand”.

This is standard Christian doctrine. No surprises here on that score. Indeed, it’s pretty much common to every belief system that theirs is the only way that’s fully true or correct. Muslims believe the Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the divine Sonship of Christ are blasphemous assaults on the nature of God. Buddhists believe their Eightfold Path is the only correct way. Hindus are firmly convinced that their pantheistic understanding of the cosmos is the highest understanding of reality. Atheists believe it’s all a fairy tale and that if we had any true understanding we’d embrace the nonexistence of any and every god.

The common accusation that it’s arrogant to claim that we alone have the truth seems a bit moot under the circumstances. We all believe we’re right and everyone else is wrong or mistaken insofar as they disagree with us. We’re all “arrogant” in that sense. Christians are not exempt, but we’re not unique in that either.

I’ve talked quite a lot on this blog about the idea of finding common ground with people of other belief systems. Faiths as conceptually far apart as Christianity and Hinduism share in common at least the basic understanding that the material world is not all there is. A fellow Abrahamic faith like Islam is far closer to Biblical Christianity, even if Muslims hold several major points of doctrine that we believe to be erroneous or untrue.

And yet, “all other ground is sinking sand”.

Am I compromising on the exclusivity of Christ?

We don’t build our faith on the lyrics of hymns (no matter how good they are) but on Scripture, but this is an accurate distillation of the Bible’s teaching on the subject. The Bible really does teach that Jesus Christ is the only Saviour and Mediator between holy God and fallen Man.

What that doesn’t mean is that everything anyone else believes is false in totality.

If nothing else, Satan’s too good a liar for that. No lie can hold up if it contradicts observable reality on all points. Even the most blatant, bald-faced lie has to hold enough truth be at least vaguely self-consistent, and when we’re talking about fundamental belief systems encompassing metaphysics and explanations for the observed reality, we must necessarily hold true to that observed reality on some level, even if that’s a claim that observed reality is ultimately illusory.

What the exclusivity of Christ does mean is that ultimately, none of these other belief systems is going to cut it.

Various politically-correct attempts to harmonise the different belief systems or say that they’re all “true for their followers” miss the point that Reality is what it is, and no matter how strongly we believe to the contrary or how true what we believe feels, if what we believe doesn’t line up with that Reality, then it’s actually false.

It’s all very well to make sweeping claims of how all religions are true, but we really do believe some vastly contradictory things as fundamental truths of our different faiths.

Hinduism accepts many gods. The “highest” (by their own thinking) form of Hinduism treats these many gods as fundamentally illusory, mere flawed manifestations of the impersonal cosmic All for limited minds to grasp. Jews and Muslims believe in one God who created the cosmos. Christians believe in one God, but He’s triune. Buddhists treat the question of whether there’s a God or not as basically irrelevant, but more or less piggyback on Hindu worldview the way Christians piggyback on a Jewish worldview.

But ultimately, Reality is what it is, and at most only one of these can match up with it.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, naturally I believe that what I believe is that which matches up with Reality best. I think there’s good evidence for both the existence of the God that the Bible describes and for the truth and accuracy of the Bible itself. I’m not going to open that massive and complex subject here; other people far more intelligent than I have examined all sorts of evidence at length, and the information’s out there if you’re sufficiently interested to track it down. It’s always possible we’re all mistaken in what we believe, I suppose, but as far as I can tell the evidence isn’t pointing that way.

But if the Way of Jesus really is true in the sense of matching up with how the cosmos actually really is, why am I so concerned to find common ground?

Followers of Christ have both a religious duty and a moral obligation to spread the word about what we believe. Not only are we commanded by our faith to do so, but if it’s true, if we’re correct in our belief of the truth of what we believe, lives really are at stake here. You may of course disagree, but if we believe lives are at stake and yet do nothing about it, doesn’t that constitute culpability?

A lot of the time we followers of Jesus certainly don’t act like we really believe that lives are at stake and that people who don’t believe are heading for an eternity cut off from the Source of all good, but that’s what necessarily follows from what we believe about the truth of our message.

But if “all other ground is sinking sand”, why look for truth in what they believe? Isn’t that sort of backwards?

Well, I don’t know about anyone else, but when I’m faced with someone rudely saying that everything I believe is a falsehood, my instinct is to dismiss everything I’m hearing, argue and get angry. So I find I can’t really blame Muslims or Atheists or anyone else on the receiving end of this from sincere Christians wanting to fulfil their moral obligation to spread the word. No-one likes to be told they’re wrong, totally wrong.

But if we have a moral obligation to spread the good news about Jesus the Messiah, we have a corollary obligation to do so in a way that can be heard and received.

It’s not enough just to talk at people without knowing or caring where they come from or what they believe. What good is that, if people dismiss it out of hand? Especially if they might have actually accepted our message a bit if we’d have gone about our presentation a little differently.

I used to believe that evangelism, sharing the good news about Jesus, was scary and difficult. The Bible says the world’s default position is hostility to God, so I expected opposition, hostility and rejection. That’s scary stuff when you’re a teenager who already has a bit of a rejection complex. But I knew I was supposed to share the good news with everyone, and so every so often I’d guilt myself into doing some sort of “evangelism event”, deliberately going out to find targets for the Gospel.

Of course, it seldom worked very well. I’d end up with a bit of an adrenalin rush from actually going ahead and facing down my fear of rejection, but to this day I’m not sure how much good it actually did. I still hated and feared evangelism.

These days I believe that sharing the Good News is actually easy. Still a bit scary (Satan has a vested interest in making us afraid to tell others where the fire escape is) but actually easy.

Most people don’t want to be talked at by someone wanting to convince them that what they believe is the only truth, but most people are willing to talk about what they believe in. I look for common ground so I have some idea where to start. Muslims believe Jesus was a prophet. The Holy Spirit can work with that; so do we. We believe He’s more than that as well, but let’s talk about Jesus’ prophethood and what being a prophet means and whether “prophet” alone encompasses all that Jesus is. Atheists believe the universe is rational and science can explain things. Great! So do we; let’s talk about the shape of the observed universe and whether undifferentiated chaos can organise itself, or whether the universe is moral or random, or whether what we believe determines what evidence we’ll accept, or something.

I’m happy to have a conversation about serious stuff. I always have been. My difficulty with the whole “evangelism” thing has always been that it feels false and disingenuous to start conversations with someone just to talk about what I believe.

What I believe isn’t the issue here. Let’s talk aboit what you believe.

I don’t ultimately believe that what a Muslim believes can go the distance between flawed mankind and perfect Godhead, but if talking with me is their first opportunity to actually talk with a follower of Jesus, it would be criminal to waste that by attacking their beliefs in a way that makes us look like the dangeous infidels they’ve always been told we are.

Whether or not (and in what way) Jesus is the Son of God may be too weighty a topic for a first conversation. Most Muslims I’ve actually talked to interpret that sort of language as us claiming Jesus is the son of God like Hercules was the son of Zeus, so they’re understandably put off by Christians’ apparent insistence on giving a blasphemous title to the one they consider sinless and one of their greatest prophets.

I’m not compromising on the exclusive claims of Christ. All other ground really is sinking sand. But I don’t believe it’s good enough to talk at other people in a way that virtually guarantees that they will misunderstand, either. We’re tasked with being communicators, and true communication requires understanding going both ways.

Because Jesus Christ really is the only Saviour.


One and the Same?

I’ve blogged about this before, but with Wheaton College’s recent dismissal of one of their professors for claiming that Muslims and Christians worship the same God, it seems like a timely subject to revisit.

It seems as though this is a sensitive as well as timely subject, as evidenced by Wheaton’s reaction to what some Christians (even Bible-believing Evangelicals) would see as a legitimate intellectual position, and it’s not really one that the Bible itself weighs in on very clearly. In the period in which the Bible was being written, there were no other extant monotheistic faiths about which the Bible authors saw fit to comment. Even Akhenaten’s solar monotheism goes unremarked in Scripture, and Islam was several hundred years in the future at the time of Christ. At the time of writing even the last books of the New Testament, Christianity wasn’t even fully divorced from Judaism, the only other existing monotheisting faith..

So we’re dependent for an answer largely on our own reasoning and wisdom, and our interpretation of certain few Scriptural precedents.

There are simplistic arguments and poorly-reasoned responses on both sides. It would be incredibly oversimplifying the question (as well as denying the real differences between us) to say that since both Muslims and Christians believe in one God who created and rules the universe that therefore the Muslim and Christian views of this God are identical at all points, but equally, it would be oversimplifying the question (and denying the considerable body of basic truth that we do hold in common) to say that since the Muslim and Christian doctrines of God are not identical at all points that therefore the Islamic Allah and the Christian God are fundamentally separate beings.

What the debate boils down to is how significant are the differences, and how significant are the commonalities?

It should be evident to anyone that Muslims and Christians do have several crucial differences in how they conceive of the Divinity. Christians believe in a Godhead who is Triune. Muslims consider any attempt to compromise the singularity of the Divinity as the ultimate sin of shirk, or blasphemy about the Divine nature. Christians believe in a God who is Love. Muslims see this as an anthropomorphism at best and almost certainly a heretical notion. And so on.

But it should also be obvious that there is a lot of overlap in how we perceive the Divinity. The Muslim Allah and the Christian God are both shown in the relevant texts of the two religions as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. They are both known as Creator, Sustainer, Almighty, Ruler of the angels, Lord of the Universe. It’s not totally unreasonable to suggest that we might be looking at the same Being from different angles.

Ah, but that relativises revealed Christian truth and undercuts missions by suggesting that Muslims don’t need to be saved, we are told sometimes.

Personally, I find that to be avoiding the question. Jews who are not Messianic also consider the Christian concept of the Trinity to be blasphemous, yet no-one I know about is suggesting that the Jewish Adonai is not the same Being as the Christian God. Indeed, our very foundational theology rests on the fact that they are one and the same: “Christianity is Judaism fulfilled”, as we sometimes put it.

So what makes Islam different?

Saying that Muslims and Christians worship the same God is not the same as saying that Islam is wholly right. Some of their theology is wildly divergent from mainstream Christian doctrine, as I have said. The real question is over how significant those real theological differences are to the question of whether or not we worship the same God. After all, Calvinists and Arminians sometimes hold some wildly divergent theological doctrines, yet no-one seriously claims that Baptists and Methodists are following different gods. Or Protestants and Catholics, for that matter. I don’t hold with the Catholic elevation of the Bishop of Rome or their doctrines of purgatory and penance, and some of their veneration of the Virgin Mary and other saints is a little too close to outright worship for my personal comfort, but I don’t try to say that Catholics are worshipping a false god. That would be rather ridiculous, in my opinion.

In other words, just because we have some different beliefs and teachings about God, it does not necessarily mean that there is a black-and-white separation and “our God” is the true one and the fact that their teachings differ from that is prima facie evidence that “their god” is a false one. That seems rather simplistic. The truth is a little more complex.

For those who believe that Muslims and Christians are worshipping different beings, the crucial difference comes down to character. They point to the apparent capriciousness of the Muslim Allah, the recorded harsh, demanding aspect of his character and the total lack of any sense of the Christian idea that “God is Love”. They point to the absolute and uncompromising monotheism of Islam, with no room for the complex Christian idea of the Trinity. They point to the apparent distance of the Muslim Allah from his believers.

These are all valid points and critical differences. Muslim concepts of Allah and Christian concepts of God are really not the same.

But is that the same as saying that therefore they are two separate beings? I’m not sure.

If we were to encounter a new tribe of polytheistic pagans who had a notion of a “high god” who was a good Creator deity, but distant from humans and uninvolved, most of us would probably identify that “high god” with the God of Scripture, even if the local religion’s concept of that God was that He was limited in power, presence and knowledge. After all, isn’t that what Paul did with his Mars Hill speech to the Athenians, proclaiming the “unknown god”?

Paul was even prepared to repurpose pagan poetry (functionally almost equivalent to Judaeochristian prophecy for the ancient Greeks) addressed to the vengeful, capricious and lustful Zeus to convey Christian truth about the Divine Being.

Was Paul saying that all of the Greek ideas and stories about Zeus were right? No, of course not. And honesty compels me to admit that he wasn’t saying that the pagan Zeus and the Christian YHWH were the same being, either. But historians tell us that at this period the more philosophical among the Greeks were beginning to dimly grasp that humans needed a Deity who was higher than the pagan stories. Though framed in the language of Zeus, there was a groping towards the notion of a High God. Zeus at his most exalted begins to approach Yahweh at His lowest ebb.

Can we build on that? Paul thought so.

Can we do the same with Islamic ideas about the Divine Being? Why would we be unable to? They are far closer to the whole truth.

A lot of the argument seems like a deliberate misunderstanding of one another’s position. To those who claim that Muslims and Christians are worshipping the same God, saying that we aren’t is perceived as a simplistic and unhelpful denial of the very real overlap in conceptions of the Muslim Allah and the Christian God. As one who holds this position, I often want to point out that it is unhelpful, when trying to lead a Muslim to faith in the Messiah, to start out from an attitude of “everything you believe is wrong”. Because it isn’t so. He (or she) already knows the Divine Being as good, omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent, just as we know the Divine Being as good, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. He already knows that there is a spiritual world. He acknowledges angels and demons, the Messiahship of Jesus and the reality of the Last Judgement. It seems foolishly ignorant to dismiss all of that.

However, it cuts both ways. For many of those who say that Muslims and Christians are not worshipping the same God, this is merely a way of acknowledging that the Muslim doctrine of Allah does not entirely square with the Christian doctrine of God. They are (most of them) not saying that Muslims do not believe any Biblical truths about the Deity, just that the differences are significant enough that it is perilous at best to equate the Muslim Allah and the Christian God. They really aren’t the same.

As for me, I’m more comfortable with giving Muslims the credit of at least worshipping the same Being that we are, even if, like the pagan polytheists in my hypothetical example, they get some of it wrong. To me, what the differences largely come down to is a difference in focus on various aspects of the nature of God. We look on the differences as largely differences in character, and they are (given that we are prepared to believe that Jewish people worship the same God despite their rejecting the notion of the Trinity), but to my mind that obscures a very interesting difference in how we approach the nature of God.

Both Muslims and Christians hold that God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. Or in simpler words, all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere at all times. We both hold that He is both good and eternal. But we have different areas of focus, and they affect the way we perceive His character.

Muslims acknowledge all of those attributes, but the really important one to Muslims is His omnipotence. God is first and foremost great, supreme in power and without rival. To Muslims, even His justice and goodness are second to His omnipotence; whereas Christians believe in an objective standard of right and wrong to which even God is subject, to a Muslim the idea that God could be subject to anything, even the idea of right and wrong, is nonsense. Whatever Allah does is right, not because Allah constrains Himself to never do wrong, but because whatever He does becomes right. It’s right because God is doing it.

By the same token, referring to God as “Father”, “Lover”, “Bridegroom” or many other of our Christian titles is to do the all-powerful, supremely exalted Godhead the blasphemous disservice of equating Him with our human expressions of those titles. We’re bringing God down to our level, as far as they are concerned. God isn’t like a fallible human father in all ways, much less the equality that “lover” can sometimes communicate.

By contrast, for many Western Christians the really important attribute of God is His omnipresence. Yes, God is all-powerful and all-knowing, but the important thing is that He’s close to us. “Emmanuel” is a truth that much of Christian doctrine rests upon, but even beyond its meaning that “The Word became flesh”, we focus on God’s nearness and readiness to act on our behalf. Look at our worship songs. “What a Friend We Have In Jesus”. “Jesus, Lover of My Soul”. “Your Love Reaches Me”. And so on. We acknowledge God’s transcendence and power, but it’s subordinated to, and in service of, His with-us-ness.

If Muslims err in bending all of God’s other attributes around His omnipotence, it seems like a lot of we Christians err just as much in bending all of God’s other attributes around His intimate Presence. Emmanuel does not mean that Jesus is my Boyfriend, after all, though we often seem to sing and make music as if it does.

But the question of whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is a nuanced and subtle one, as much a matter of interpretation as various “difficult” passages of Scripture. I personally believe that it is reasonable to suggest that we are, but I take the point that we do indeed really believe some very different things about Who we are worshipping.

In other words, the debate is still open. And in light of that, I’m afraid Wheaton College’s dismissal of one of its professors over this question is not going to do anything to further the debate. At best it seems counterproductive; at worst, a little like intellectual dishonesty. This is apparently, in Wheaton’s eyes, not open for discussion. If you even dare to suggest the possibility, it is as much grounds for dismissal as claiming that the Resurrection did not physically happen.

I’m a little saddened that not even a respected academic institution like Wheaton seems able to have an adult discussion about the issue.

An Approved Workman

“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth”      II Timothy 2:15

The Apostle Paul’s challenge to Timothy rings down the centuries to all who have been in positions of teaching or leadership in the Body of Christ. Not just pastors and elders and deacons, but all those members of us who like to dig into the Word and bring its truths to light. Study to show yourself approved. Be a workman unashamed, who rightly divides the Word of truth.

It’s not the only time Paul talks about someone being “approved”, either. In among the greetings in Romans 16, we read (v10) “Greet Apelles, the approved in Christ”. Probably this Apelles was a preacher, then; someone Paul thought of as a teacher of sound doctrine who could correctly handle the Scriptures.

“Approved” begs the question of “approved by whom?” It seems fairly evident that it’s God who approves, but how do we know that God is doing that? It’s easy to claim the Divine imprimatur on your own teaching, but we know also that there are liars and hypocrites and wolves masquerading as sheep.

In the days when Paul was writing, many of the original Twelve were still around. There were people still living who had heard the Sermon on the Mount and who had been in the Upper Room at Pentecost and some of whom had been sent out by Jesus as part of the Twelve or the Seventy-Two. It was a largely oral culture, yes, but oral cultures have good memories for details and have systems in place for making sure the story stays straight. If you don’t believe me, try telling your young daughter the story of Cinderella with ruby slippers instead of glass ones and watch the outburst of indignation.

The Apostles as a whole could vouch for this or that doctrine or teaching being true or false to what Jesus actually did and taught. Most of the New Testament letters are them doing just that, in fact. Paul went up to Jerusalem and laid out his doctrine before the Apostles, we are told in Galatians 2. A large part of being an Apostle was the responsibility to the Church at large to keep the teachings true to Jesus’ words and actions.

So “approved” might carry the meaning of “approved by the Apostles as being true to what they themselves received”. We don’t have any of the original Twelve still among us, but we have the entire canon of Scripture assembled painstakingly by the early church as constituting the essential body of teaching of the Ecclesia. We have a huge corpus of additional writings showing what the church through history has thought about this canon. So in modern terms, “approved” might be more like “in line with the essential doctrines of historic Christianity.

If you reinterpret passages of Scripture in entirely novel ways, there’s a risk involved. The onus is on you to show that this new reading is true to what the text is actually saying and in keeping with the rest of Scripture.

It’s not that we can never decide that the church has been mistaken about what a passage says, even mistaken for centuries. Just like us, the ancients were humans, products of their culture and sometimes making assumptions that we do not. For example, for centuries it was assumed that women were inherently inferior to men, something that we’re finally managing to get past only in recent years. Re-reading some passages of Scripture without those particular cultural blinders on might lead us in new directions of interpretation that are more true to the text and to the Scripture in general.

Correctly handling the Word of truth so that we do not need to be ashamed is something that all of us who claim the name of Christ should aspire to. I hope I’m getting there, though I’m painfully aware that I have my own blind spots and interpretive tendencies. I believe that what I write in this blog is that sort of sound teaching.

But I’m not the One who gets to be the final Judge of that.

You Are Wrong Because I Disagree

When I started this blog, one of my very early posts was on the subject “One Interpretation, Many Applications“. I’ve modified my perspective quite a lot since then (or rather, decided that my initial read on the subject was correct after all), and as I’ve been having some discussions with my wife in which the subject came up, I thought I might revisit it.

Some of what I have to say is going to rehash that earlier post, but I’d like to do it anyway because the conclusions are different.

Some time in the past I was having a disagreement with a fellow-believer in which he (naturally) turned to Scripture to support his position. I still forget what the issue was; it’s irrelevant. This is about process.

I said that I didn’t interpret that Bible passage in that way. In my world, this is a fair comment. We can’t always be as sure as we’d like to be of precisely what the Bible means in particular controversial passages; that, after all, is why they are controversial to begin with. Different commentators have different opinions, and that’s ok.

To my surprise, he responded in a way that I found shockingly alien. He said, as if it were an established and incontrovertible truth, that “there’s only one interpretation of Scripture”. Later discussions with him revealed this to be the first half of what in his head is a paired couplet: “there’s one interpretation, but many applications”.

Note that the effect of this is to shut down discussion. There’s no give-and-take here; no debate over historical context and how we can be reasonably certain that we’re reading the author’s probable meaning correctly. No; in essence this was you are wrong because you disagree with me.

I was unprepared for this line of attack and it flummoxed me into giving up the argument. But I fretted over it for years. I got to know him well enough to know that he’s as honest as they come. If he says something, usually you can take it to the bank. In addition, he’s had at least part of a seminary education and been a follower of Jesus for longer than I’ve been alive. He ought to know what he’s talking about, right?

But it didn’t sit well with me. For a start, I didn’t think his way of shutting down the discussion was a valid or helpful way of arguing a point, and in addition the idea itself just seemed wrong.

So some time last spring I actually looked up the phrase “one interpretation, many applications” to see what some more knowledgeable commentators online had to say about it.

Imagine my surprise when I found almost without exception that those who mentioned the phrase defended it to a man as a principle of sound Bible interpretation.

This was basically where I had got to when I posted last time. But then I began to think some more.

Wait a minute. I may not have a seminary education, but I’ve been around theology and Bible study long enough that I’m not exactly Mr. Ignorance here. If it’s such a big, important hermeneutical principle, how come I’d never heard of it until this person trotted it out as his personal Ultimate Debating Weapon?

As far as I can tell from reading around online, the main thrust of “one interpretation, many applications” is that it is not permissible to interpret Scripture however the heck you like. The words in the original languages may have several distinct, overlapping meanings, but it’s usually fairly straightforward to tell which meaning is correct in the sentence. It’s like the English sentence “he polished off his Polish sausage”. In addition, there is a real historical context which affects the meaning of the text, and you can get yourself into trouble it you don’t pay attention to the difference between First Century Jewish culture and Twenty-First Century America. As a silly example, when Jesus tells the disciples “you are my friends” it has nothing to do with Facebook.

Every cult or sect in existence that actually uses the Bible at all almost invariably uses strange, unorthodox interpretations of key passages to bolster their doctrine. This is what “one interpretation, many applications” addresses.

I get this, and up to a point I agree.

But I’ve decided that, just as I originally thought after I first ran into the phrase, there is a substantive difference between “you can’t make the Bible say something it doesn’t” and there only ever being one single permissible interpretation of a given passage.

As my brother-in-law rightly challenged me, what about prophecy? More to the point, what about the interpretations that the Apostles made of key Old Testament passages that they saw as being fulfilled in the life of Christ?

If there is only one interpretation of “the virgin shall be with child”, then according to standard usage of “one interpretation”, it ought to be referring to a child born in Isaiah’s day, in whose infancy the land of the two kings dreaded by Judah (ie Aram and the northern apostate kingdom of Israel) would be laid waste by the Assyrians.

And yet the Apostles clearly interpreted the passage as a prophecy of Jesus’ birth. Evidently there is more to it than just “there’s only one interpretation”.

Certainly there are unorthodox doctrines that you can only get to by twisting of the meaning of the Scriptures. There is such a thing as a poor hermeneutical system, such a thing as a deviant interpretation. If the consensus among respected Bible scholars is that this verse probably means X, it takes a courageous (in the British political sense of “suicidally stupid”) person to insist that it means Q. There are reasons why it probably means X, and those same reasons also mean that it categorically cannot mean Q unless we remove or radically re-interpret passages 1-12 of Scripture.

If your interpretation of a passage relies on secondary meanings of a word that are at odds with its plain meaning, or pays no attention to the historic cultural context, you probably have the wrong end of the stick, and we can show you why.

And here is the crux of my problem with “one interpretation”. There’s no reasoning beyond this point. No “the cultural context being like this doesn’t really lend weight to that interpretation”, just, as I said, you are wrong because you disagree with me. At best, “one interpretation” seems overly simplistic, or perhaps reliant on very narrow technical definitions of what constitutes an “application” as opposed to an “interpretation”. At worst it becomes a way to say “you are wrong” without backing up your claim with anything substantial.

Perhaps my response should have been something along the lines of “Ok, but how do you know that yours is the “one interpretation” that is valid?”

A Vandalism of Grackles

America has a lot of really lovely birds that we don’t get in Britain. Hummingbirds. Cardinals. Bluebirds. Scissortails. Orioles.

The grackle isn’t one of these.

They’re loud. They’re raucous. They look weird. They sound horrendous. They’re quarrelsome. They congregate in massive numbers on telephone wires and defecate on anything foolish enough to be underneath.

Round about this time every year, North Texas is plagued with millions of these awful birds, migrating south from more northerly latitudes.

Apparently Texas is their wintering-grounds; they aren’t passing through on their way somewhere else. And even for someone with a love for misunderstood and generally dismissed creatures, I have to agree with the majority on this one. Grackles are not nice birds.

For my non-US readership, the males are ugly, long-tailed black birds that look like some form of diminutive crow, but without the dignity. The females are the same, except brown and with shorter tails.

Members of the crow family have a bad reputation. Ravens, thanks to their use by the Norse as a totem animal, give us words like “ravening” and “ravenous”. Crows are widely viewed as birds of ill omen, and their English collective noun is “a murder of crows” (as cut-down crow-looking things, I’m proposing “a vandalism of grackles”). Magpies are known for thievery. Yet most of these I’m prepared to give their due.

Except the grackle.

I’m sure it has its admirers. People like odd things; as a case-in-point, I like sloths. But the grackle really sometimes makes me wonder what God was thinking.

I mean, it has to have some virtues, right? What is the key to understanding and appreciating the awful grackle?

The oracle of knowledge known as Google informs me that despite their appearance, they aren’t in the crow family at all, which might explain some of their weird looks while I keep thinking of them as corvids. They’re apparently in the same family as cowbirds, which we don’t have in Britain, and the New World orioles, which we don’t have either. The males’ longer tail feathers are probably their most weird-looking feature, due to the way they seem to fold their tails closed in a sort of inverted V for flight. I have no idea why they do that; their mating displays always take place on the ground, with all the males fluffing out their feathers and chasing one another around before prancing in front of the drab females with their heads held straight up. And all the while making their horrible grackle noises.

Personally, I’d probably forgive them a lot of their weird looks and quarrelsome nature if they were either quieter or more pleasant-sounding, but grackles aren’t like that. The typical call of the grackle is somwhere between a whistle, a scream, a clatter and a caw, and they make these raucous noises at full volume and at every apparent opportunity.

I have to say that even for birds, grackles have an impressive range of vocalisations. OK, it all sounds like a car alarm being fed into a trash compactor, but there’s an incredible diversity of sounds there.

This, in itself, bespeaks intelligence.

All the birds and animals we consider cleverest have diverse call ranges and the ability to make lots of different sounds. Even among humans, we usually consider erudition to be a sign of intelligence.

However, we don’t often appreciate this kind of intelligence in animals. Parrots and apes are the emblematic animals for uncreative copying of one’s betters; mockingbirds’ name says it all: mockery, not communicative ability.

And we get suspicious of people who are “fast talkers”, mistrusting those whose persuasive ability finds its expression in words, because it can so easily be misused.

There are hypocrites, liars, manipulators, conmen, agitators, demagogues. Even the word “politician” has become a term of contempt, denoting an insincere person who uses obfuscating and duplicitous language to avoid saying anything of substance, or who changes their position with the winds of public opinion.

At least grackles can’t be accused of lying. They’re garrulous, but they’re fairly straightforward birds. If they don’t like something, you’ll know about it.

Maybe grackles are a sort of reminder that not everything evil is ugly. This is a salutary reminder after the witches and goblins and dead things of the eve of All Saints.

The Bible warns us that some of the most deadly evil is that which looks good. Satan himself goes about in disguise, looking like an angel of light. The forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was “pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom”. And as if in deliberate contrast, Jesus “had no beauty or majesty that might attract us to Him”.

As with Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings, “all that is gold does not glister”, nor is everything shiny to be prized as gold.

Sometimes the truth isn’t what we want to hear. The Pharisees didn’t want to be told that righteousness wasn’t quite what they thought it was. A conspiracy theorist doesn’t want to believe that his or her pet theory may be full of logical holes big enough to sail a carrier battlegroup through. It cuts both ways; sometimes the truth that there is no reason for fear can be as difficult to hear as the truth that We Are Wrong.

Grackles sound awful, and sometimes, so does the truth. Historically, Iron Age kings often executed those messengers who brought them news they did not want to hear; typically this only made their eventual defeat that much more complete, because they were unprepared for it.

It takes humility to recognise truth when it comes in grackle form, all raucous noise and grating unpleasantness. But truth is truth; we dare not dismiss it just because we don’t like the nail polish of the one who tells it to us.

It’s All A Conspiracy To Suppress The Truth


In which the Armour of Unreason is proven impenetrable by the Arrows of Rationality.

I remember The X-Files from the early ’90s. I never watched very much of it at all; it wasn’t really my cup of tea. Too much paranormal bizarrity and just random grossness for my taste.

One of the things I do remember is that Mulder had a UFO picture on the wall of his office with the caption “I want to believe”.

I bring this up because I’ve been arguing with crazy people on the Internet again.

The Internet, and particulary social media, must be a gift to people with strange ideas. No matter how outlandish or irrational your viewpoint, it seems you can always find “like-minded people” who share and thus normalise your particular brand of crazy.

It’s not that I don’t hold some views of my own that others would probably dismiss as the ravings of a madman. The fact that I believe in God and acknowledge the fact that there’s a spiritual world would make a lot of hardcore atheists dismiss me as deceived or mad. I’ve been a Creationist in Britain, where it’s hard to publically doubt evolution, especially as a Biology undergraduate. I don’t make much of an issue about it here in Texas, where it seems like it’s fashionable to believe that scientists, the media and the government are conspiring to lie to us all for their own nefarious purposes. Firstly it’s no fun, and secondly, I’m really uncomfortable with the general disrespect for science displayed by most people who self-identify as Creationists.

The best way to convince me to change my views is to present me with an extremist version of views I already hold. See this crazy person? That’s what you look like…

Which is probably why I get into it with crazy people in the first place.

Not every crazy person is going to meet my semi-Pavlovian response of, to make use of Terry Pratchett’s hilarious satire, “Smite-the-unbeliever-with-cunning-arguments” (this being the given name of one of his pseudo-Jehovah’s Witnesses, through whom he pokes fun at the church in general. Smite’s co-religionist is named “Visit-the-ungodly-with-explanatory-pamphlets”). There are times that I just throw my hands up and say “you know what? Why should I bother trying to convice you. It’s fairly obvious you aren’t going to listen to reason.” But with Christian crazies, somehow I just can’t help myself. You claim to be a follower of Christ like me, so I have to acknowledge you as one of the family of faith. And yet you also hold these other views that are all the way out the other side of fringe and approaching sanity from the back side. By association, you’re making me look crazy, and making my faith look irrational. Stop it. Please, for the cause of Christ, don’t ever tell people you’re a Christian.

This particular crazy person believed that the US military is poisoning us all by means of the water vapour contrails of high-altitude jet aircraft. If he’d stopped there I probably would have just written him off as a random crazy. But then he went from there to “surely the Day is coming. come, Lord Jesus!”, thus indelibly linking faith in the coming Kng-Messiah Jesus with his irrational beliefs. I’m afraid I let him have it with both barrels.

Any idiot wth half a gram of scientific training and logic can tell you that when hot wet jet exhaust hits cold dry upper atmospheric air in which there is enough dust for water droplets to condense around, vapour contrails form. It’s exactly the same process as with clouds. It’s not uncanny and it’s not sinister. It’s just water obeying the laws of physics that God set for it.

To believe anything else… My question is “how do you get there?” Surely you don’t do a Google search on “how do jet contrails form?” and then, in spite of the vast majority of scientific, scholarly accounts explaining the physics of what’s going on, out of all of the diverse theories, opt for “the US military is poisoning us all”?

No, you have some preconceived idea that makes you embrace that possibility in spite of the main body of evidence. Like Mulder, you want to believe.

It certainly seems a popular idea to believe that We Are Being Lied To. I see car bumper stickers here in the arch-conservative state of Texas saying (and this is a direct quote): “I Don’t Believe The Liberal Media”.

Now, the issue of bias in news reporting is a complex and subtle one, and everyone comes at stories with a certain amount of preconception based on the fact that we, as humans, cannot stand outside of our own worldviews and belief systems. We are limited and finite in our intelligence, and so we have to make decisions on what data we will accept as valid and relevant. Some of this happens on an unconscious basis.

For example, if you believe that the material world is all there is and that things not conforming to the laws of science as we understand them (ie miracles) cannot happen, by definition, you will automatically look for a non-miraculous explanation of a miracle story: It’s an exaggeration, or the placebo effect, or selective reporting, or an outright lie, or some scientific principle that we don’t fully understand yet.

News organisations do have their biases. I grew up in Britain, where the political leanings of each of the major national newspapers is public knowledge. As a hint and example, the Independent isn’t.

But what these bumper stickers generally mean is “I get all my news from internet outlets known more for their adherence to a right-wing political line than for attempting objectivity and neutrality”.

The information and sources you accept as valid frame the interpretations you are willing to accept. If you already believe the media are lying to you (or at least, misrepresenting the data and being selective in their reporting), you are predisposed by that belief to take fringe conspiracy theories more seriously. After all, they’re lying to you about this (whatever it is), what else might they be lying to you about?

And because of the internet (especially the way search engines remember what you’ve searched for in the past in order to try and bring you results they think you’ll like), you gather with other like-minded people in your own little puddle of crazy. Where, because everyone thinks like you do, you think you’re normal. Information coming in from unapproved channels and sources can be safely dismissed as unreliable. They’ve bought into the lie. They’ve been corrupted by the enemy. “They are biased against us”. They’ve gone over to the Dark Side.

Can no-one weigh evidence any more? Do we truly not understand how to distinguish fact from fiction? If William of Ockham had been alive today, he would grow a beard, so little do we use his famous “Razor”.

Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. In other words, the simpest explanation that fits all the facts is the one likely to be true.

Which is simpler? To believe that 9/11 was a terrorist attack by al-Qaeda (who, let’s remember, claimed responsibility for it, as well as this being where most of the physical evidence points), or to believe it was all a massive government conspiracy in order to start a war in the Middle East? To believe that vapour contrails are just water obeying the laws of physics or that they are a hyper-secret plot by the military to poison us all?

Never mind the infrastructure that would have to be in place to load these hypothetical poisons into the planes to begin with (and under the noses of not only the passengers and air crews but also all of the maintenance people as well), but the amount of people that would have to be in on it to make it work is immense. A super-secret conspiracy involving huge numbers of people is an oxymoron.
Or at least, extremely unrealistic. And this is not even mentioning questions of motive and motivation. Why would they want to do that, and why would they go through with it? The individual military people I know are honourable men and women, yet you want me to believe that their entire organisation is evil? It doesn’t fit.

It is, in essence, Crazy.

But of course, if you’re crazy, you’re very selective about the reality you accept. You have armoured yourself against such puny things as logic, objective evidence and rational debate. You want to believe, and you’ve surrounded yourself with like-minded people to the extent that you really do believe that all of your crazy theories are “blatantly obvious”. After all, everyone in your narrow circle agrees with you! If you don’t agree, you must be evil or deceived.

Analysis of source reliability is a basic tool for discerning truth from error. If you can’t distinguish reliable sources from unreliable ones, you are open to any lie that happens to reinforce your preconceived ideas. It’s more attractive to believe in a sexy conspiracy theory than a boring truth that includes some “we’ll probably never know exactly why”s. The internet doesn’t care whether something is true or not. It just finds stories. The onus is ours to sift and weigh the information, and to all appearances we’ve lost the ability to judge source reliability. And this says uncomfortable things about our Christianity. Who cares about evidence? Believe in Jesus because it’s a sexy story and you get good feelings from it.

It’s all very disheartening. The lunatics are running the asylum, secure in their armour of unreason. Like the dwarfs in CS Lewis’ The Last Battle, so afraid of being “taken in” and deceived that they cannot be taken out of the prison of lies they have built for themselves.

I know. I shouldn’t argue with the crazies, even the Christian ones. It only feeds the outrage and disconnection that fuels their pursuit of unreality. But somehow I find it difficult to stop myself. I love truth, and you’re equating it with your own irrational delusions. It makes us all look as crazy as you, and I object to that.


One Interpretation, Many Applications

It has been said that for any given Scripture passage, there is “one interpretation, many applications”. Anyone who’s been educated in proper hermeneutics (Bible interpretation) will recognise the truth stated here.

However, like a great many pithy summary statements, we must be careful that we are not getting the wrong end of the stick.

Let me illustrate with a personal story.

Several years back I was discussing the meaning of a particular Bible passage with someone. I can’t remember which one, but I can remember that I thought the other person’s take on the passage was odd. I said something like “Well, I don’t interpret that passage that way.” That’s when he came out with this wonderful chestnut.

This effectively closed out the discussion. He was basically saying “you are wrong because you disagree with me.”

It may be true that you have it right and that where I disagree with you I’m wrong. But if you’re right and I’m wrong, you ought to be able to show why, not just close the discussion with a misapplied truism.

It rankled at the time, but for the sake of our relationship I let it go, merely asking him where he got that idea.

He pointed to 2 Peter 1:20 and quoted the unfamiliarly-worded King James Bible (I grew up on the NIV), saying that “Scripture is not of any private interpretation”.

I let the matter drop. I was not on familiar ground, and what the NIV said didn’t seem to help much. In the version I was familiar with, it seemed pretty clear that this was talking about not making the Bible say any weird old thing you like. I didn’t think that’s what I had been doing, butwhen you’ve just been told you are wrong simply through disagreeing, you’re never quite sure what the other person’s perspective is going to be. I let the matter drop. It wasn’t a central tenet of the faith, anyway.

But his line of argument niggled at me for years. I always felt there was something wrong with it, but for the life of me I couldn’t identify what.

Then finally I did what I ought to have done much sooner. I did an internet search for “one interpretation, many applications”.

Imagine my surprise to discover that, far from being some weird quasi-heretical notion, it’s actually one of the foundational ideas of sound Bible interpretation.

Properly used, the idea of “one interpretation, many applications” is what prevents cults and doctrinally off-beam groups from “reinterpreting” the Bible in ways that make it say what is contrary to the plain sense of the text. There is only one correct interpretation: that which accords with the writer’s original intent in writing what he did. “One interpretation” may not be used as a bludgeon to bully people into accepting a particular view of a passage based on any one individual’s say-so. Nor may it be used to quash those you disagree with or win arguments simply by declaring yourself right.

Likewise, “many applications” prevents people justifying misbehaviour based on Scriptural omissions. Just because the commandment “Do not covet” does not list cars and houses is not justification for coveting those things. In the same way, just because the command to “love your neighbour” does not specifically mention bosses is no reason to exclude them from the list of people we’re supposed to love and do good to. It’s designed to stop people giving themselves a personal exemption clause on Scriptural commands. It may not be used to allow you to pull in any random Scripture and say it applies to any and all situations. There may be “many applications”, but those applications must be consistent with the interpretation of the text. Pretty obvious, really.

The scary thing is how much of the American church seems prey to this idea that “you are wrong because you disagree with me“. Pick an issue, any issue, and I guarantee you’ll find Christians making dogmatic statements about it and slanging anyone who disagrees with them as either wrong or evil, without taking the time to explain why.

We can no longer afford to assume that the truth is obvious. We aren’t going to move anyone in the direction of faith simply by telling them they need to stop disagreeing with us.

We need to build our case, take time to really engage people where they are, treat them like reasoning and reasonable adults rather than contrary two-year-olds. Two sentences on a Facebook picture may make you feel smug about the superiority of your position, but they don’t actually help bring anyone to your side.

People don’t just suddenly decide to believe something irrational. Apparent irrationality is never irrational to the one who believes it; it always follows logically from something else they hold true.

Actually taking the time to find out why the other person believes x, y or z rather than just saying “I disagree, therefore you are wrong” may reveal more common ground than we thought existed. And even if it doesn’t, at least now we know what the real dividing issue is, and probably have a bit more respect for those we disagree with.