My Lens for Scripture

September 28, 2006

In my Bible class, we were recently asked to complete a rather exhaustive questionnaire helping us to understand the various factors which affect us as we interpret scripture.

One point I made in our discussion of the questionnaire was that while there were questions about how ethnic and gender identity affected our interpretation, there wasn’t a question about sexual orientation.

For me, my sexual orientation is perhaps the single largest factor playing into my interpretation of scripture.

What does that mean?

It means that with every reading, I am looking at the scripture from the lens of someone who has been judged by society to be different.  It means that I am reading it with a focus on how God is asking society to treat those who are viewed as different.  It means that I am seeking strength and reassurance that God loves all of the created, not just the elect, especially when the elect work so hard to make sure that they draw their own lines around themselves so that they are protected from those who are not like them.

It means that the lens through which I read looks for justice coming into this world to correct the brokenness, not in a punitive way but in a compassionate way.

It means that institutionalized discrimination is something I see in scripture, which I find condemned there as harmful to the good of all just as it has been harmful to me.

It means that I seek in scripture the passages which implore us to find ways to draw the marginalized to the center, not condemning those who are different but empowering them to find their own liberation.

It means that I see in scripture the danger of self-righteousness proclaiming to have the ‘truth’ for others who are in drastically different situations — proclaiming answers that are conveniently affordable to ourselves yet difficult for others.

None of this, of course, means that my lens is the only lens through which to see scripture.  It only means that my experience draws me naturally to those passages which highlight these aspects of scripture.  And they are definitely there.  Are there other themes in scripture?  Of course, and I am aware of them.  But my experience tends to draw me to these passages.  Social justice is something that has been largely lost in our tradition.  There is a historical precedent, both in the time of Jesus and before, in working for social justice.  Much of it may have been lost throughout the ages, much of it may not.

It is there, though, and I will not forget it.


21 Responses to “My Lens for Scripture”

  1. obadiahslope Says:

    You were asking some of us what it would take to change our minds on various issues. In fairness lets ask you a similar question. What would it take to change your mind on this?

  2. susan Says:

    Bless your heart, Jeff. It is going be an interesting three years … for you AND for Austin! 🙂

  3. Jeff Says:

    I’ll be happy to answer my original question, which had to do with what it would take to change my mind on God (which I think I answered in the original post and I’ll answer again in a minute).

    Let me first say though that I have not taken any theological position in this post.

    This post is about the experience I bring to the table in reading scripture. It has nothing to do with what scripture actually says, nor directly with God (other than how God may have shaped me in my experience), nor theology.

    This post is all about what is in front of the text. I wrote the other day about what was behind the text when I wrote about priestly revisions made during the exile and deteuronomistic history.

    What is in front of the text is all about the experience we bring to the table in reading the text and do not fall into the trap of projecting ourselves onto the text, but instead are aware of how far the text comes to us and how far we go to the text.

    There is a difference.

    So to answer your question, nothing save new experiences can change my post here, because this post is all about the experiences I have had thus far.

    Now, to restate what I said in posing my question about what it takes to change our minds about God, I believe I said that I see spiritual growth as a continual questioning of our boundaries, a constant pushing the edge of our knowledge further to try and understand the infinite.

    From that perspective, I feel as if I change my mind daily; I am learning new things daily. I pray often for God to correct me if I am incorrect in my thinking and to clarify my thoughts in ways that he finds acceptable.

    If I were to find out that Jesus was not anti-establishment, for example, I would have to change my thinking. And I may have to do that. My Bible professor, in discussing the post I put out a few days ago on the exile, ended up discussing with me that some of what I perceived to be Jesus’ push back against the post-exile scribes and pharisees is not as direct as I thought. I will have to learn accordingly.

    So, as I said, I do not place my faith in the precarious situation of being formed solely by any one thing, other than the fact that I am loved by God, just like everyone else is.


  4. obadiahslope Says:

    I agree that is is helpful to distinguish between what is in front of and what is behind the text. We all have those sets, and naming them helps us to examine each category.
    Yet without necessarily reflecting on your own situation, it is problematic that you appear to reserve some “front of text” material as inviolate. The text itself causes us to repent and ammend our lives – as you say.
    I would suggest that we should allow as a matter of principle for our “front of text” lives to be examined by the text. It may not change where we have come from, but it may reshape our views on those experiences.

  5. Jeff Says:

    That’s certainly one view of scripture, and I would agree that there is definititely a theme of repentence to be found within the text.

    However, there is also a theme of social justice to be found within the text.

    I come back to the quote I have been referring to so much lately from Daniel Groody, “Preaching humility to the powerless is enslaving, while preaching humility to the empowered is liberating.”

    The humility required for repentence is easy to preach when you are the empowered. Repentence isn’t as important when you are the oppressed; social justice and righting the wrongs of the world are.

    Overly focusing on one’s self is dangerous, and while I would agree that repentence for the sake of learning and growth is healthy, when repentence is taken to the extreme of causing guilt, shame, and feelings of self-loathing it is not a helpful quality for a religion to preach. That is why repentence is most helpful for the empowered to focus on, but less helpful for the marginalized to dwell upon.

    Gay and lesbians are marginalized. We are in a struggle that continues to marginalize our value and contribution to society and question our value and worth. Repentence as such is not helpful in that light. Social justice is. Repentence for those who would marginalize us is a more helpful quality, as is humility.


  6. obadiahslope Says:

    Jeff I guess it gets back to a responsibility not to “so expound one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”. The calls to social justice and repentance are part of a whole, and to varying extents apply to all in my view.

  7. Jeff Says:

    I think I am saying the same thing with a different slant. I think what I am saying is that scripture is layered and has many different messages for many different peoples in many different times.
    I do not excuse myself from repentence. However, my focus on repentance is between me and God- it is inward.
    Social justice is an outward focus for me. That is why you will hear me speak about it, and speak about it loudly, often, and I hope clearly. Social justice affects our community.
    Repentence is not a community value as such (unless it is repentence done for justice issues), and therefore is not as needed to be held up to a light in the community.

  8. obadiahslope Says:

    Considerthe message of John the Baptist. He held up repentance to the whole community, inculding the powerful, surely?

  9. Jeff Says:

    Obadiah –

    Please re-read my last comment more carefully. I think you’ll find that I have not excused anyone from repentance.

    At the same time, consider the message of Jesus. He held up the message of bringing the least of these into the forefront of the community. That is my point. That requires community- repentence is by its nature not something that necessarily has to be done in community.

    The work Jesus taught us to do does have to be done in community. That’s the difference. I can repent to my heart’s content without preaching about it and you don’t know whether I’m repentant or not.

    But you know by my words and actions if I’m living the life Jesus preached, because it by its nature has a visible and outward sign.


  10. obadiahslope Says:

    Yes, I can see that you have not excused any body from repentance. But you don’t seem as keen on preaching it as John.
    I am not sure where you get the idea that repentance is something that is not done in the context of community. If you have never sinned against someone else maybe. But we all have sinned against others! Take Nicodemus for example. his repentance was clearly seen as he repaid members of his community. Repentance results in rebuilding relationships the very stuff of community.
    Yes different people will have different things to repent of.
    I am not sure that social justice and repentance are as far apart as you seem to make them. Hosea is an example of a prophet proclaiming repentance and social justice as part of the same message.
    Repentance IS part of living the life Jesus preached and is one of the “visable and outwards signs” of it in my view.

  11. obadiahslope Says:

    let me rework that last sentence:
    Repentance IS part of living the life Jesus preached and tis results form some of the “visable and outwards signs” of following the way in my view.

  12. Jeff Says:

    Yes, from that standpoint I think you are saying what I’ve been saying with the Groody quote.

    Social justice and repentence are two sides of the same coin for certain.

    If I am being persecuted and you are persecuting me then I need to work for justice and you need to repent.

    That’s very simplistic, of course, because we all have elements of both within us.

    But that’s at its core what I’ve been trying to say.

    Being a part of a minority culture faced with a dominant culture that does not recognize my inherent worth as a person separate from my difference from its normative culture, my focus is naturally more on justice than on the repentenance side of the coin.


  13. obadiahslope Says:

    “my focus is naturally more on justice than on the repentence side of the coin.”
    I am not sure that is altogether a good thing for you. As you say we have elements of “both” within us. And our western culture encourages us all to celebrate our victimhood. I wonder whether to down play the the “repentance” side of christianity may not serve any of us well. At this point i have to note I have no window into your soul of course.

  14. Jeff Says:

    I would say that part of my… humility (I’ll use that word instead of repentence) is to participate in this site which tries to offer a place where other viewpoints are validated even though they may be very different from my own. I have not always had empathy for those who would exclude me from the love of God, but I have now come to forgive them and see that they too need God’s healing and may have a piece of the truth which I do not have. That is a part of my journey towards humility. But there is a line between compassion for the conditions which cause my enemies to behave poorly (loving my enemy so that I can forgive) and tolerance of my enemies behavior (negligence of my responsibility to justice).

    I do not know what your background is, but it seems to reflect one which does not come from one of systemic oppression. I think that would change your perspective.


  15. obadiahslope Says:

    You make a fair point about your site. You opened up the discussion, and you are indeed open to dialogue. That does count as far as I am concerned.
    I won’t trade oppressions with you. I do acknowledge that in the anglican communion our discussions are assymetrical – the GLBT contingent are arguing for their own personalities while for some of the rest of us the issues are seemingly less personal. I am not sure we can get away from that.

  16. Jeff Says:

    I hear your point of view in that you see us (GLBT folks) arguing for our own personalities, but that is the problem.

    Oppression in the sense that I mean it is systemic oppression, not individual oppression (although I’m not invalidating individual oppression).

    Jesus was accussed of the same thing- “Why are you hanging out with all these marginalized people? Why are you drawing them to the center of your life?” he was asked. That is the question we hear answered in the gospel. That not only for us, but for all marginalized people, cast aside by systemic oppression and discrimination that the life of Jesus tells us to make room at the table.

    For others, as is the point of the “Faith” post, who may not have had to deal with the reality of systemic oppression and may not understand what it means to be on the margins, it is more important to focus on the “faith facts” than living out the life of Jesus.

    That’s really the point of that post. It doesn’t have to be either/or, it is both/and. We are a diverse people of God with diverse experiences, and God loves all of us. To assume that God only works in one way is, in my view, arrogant. The only “catch” in there is to ensure that we are aware that God may be meeting other people in a place different than where we have been met – that other people may have different experiences; be given different calls, then we have.

    That’s the inclusive nature of God, in my view.


  17. obadiahslope Says:

    I don’t think we are very good at listening to each other. But lets keep trying. I am not sure that the boundaries between the “oppressed” and those who deal in “faith facts” is as neat a dichotomy as you drawer.. I suspect that the majority of evangelicals in the Anglican communion are poor and oppressed.
    It might sound strange, but I think our realities are more commplicated than you describe.

  18. RudigerVT Says:

    Guys, as a casual, sometime observer, I’ve just got a pretty basic question.

    Isn’t the rub here that Jeff beleives his being gay is (basically) an expression of God’s plan for his life, while Obadiahslope believes that it is a perversion of the plan, at best a mistake, a set of inclinations and interests to be resisted, as acting upon them is sinful?


  19. Jeff Says:

    Obadiah –

    I think your point is a good one in that certainly the majority of people in the world are oppressed in some way, and most religion in the world is focused on “faith fact”.

    Again, my point is that our realities are very complicated, and our religious structures must accomodate that complication- that nothing is ever “all one way” or “all another”. It is never “all about faith facts” or “all about oppression”.

    It is subtle and nuanced.

    On listening- I will admit that I haven’t been a good listener lately. Seminary will do that to you, I think- sometimes I wonder if the point of seminary isn’t to remove all capacity to be pastoral and make one as dogmatic as possible!


  20. Jeff Says:

    Rudiger –

    Your summary articulates my position pretty well- I would only add that I don’t purport to know what God calls other people into doing. I don’t project my experience with God onto others; I only know that the church must be broad enough to take all those experiences in and nurture them all.


  21. Catherine+ Says:

    I am reminded of an Episcopal priest who said the following:

    “Christians have to find a way–a lens–if you will, through which to interpret this body of text [the Bible] on which our faith is founded….My lens–and in this I am not alone–is the two great commandments. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your mind and with all your soul, and you must love your neighbor as yourself. YOU MUST LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF. And I don’t see the word “straight” in there anywhere.”

    –The Reverend Lily Conner, Episcopal priest, in the mystery novel by Michelle Blake, “The Book of Light”, page 41, published in 2003–

    I think our fictional priest got it right the first time! ‘nough said.


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