Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Listening and loving

As a child, I was afraid of dogs. I told people I hated them. I didn't like looking at their pictures. I moved as far away as possible from anyone walking a dog. I didn't want to go into a house where I knew there was a dog living.


Apparently, when I was a toddler, a large and probably over-friendly dog jumped at me and terrified me. It took years for me to learn to like dogs again.

Others have more painful experiences: perhaps they were knocked over, or bitten by a dog. Perhaps they knew someone who was ravaged by a dog. Perhaps they had early experience of highly-trained guard dogs who would attack strangers. Some of them may never really come to accept dogs as (mostly) friendly, tame pets.

Fear or distrust of dogs is so common that when we hear someone insisting they hate dogs, we assume they've had a bad experience with them in the past. We're sympathetic, on the whole. We might make gentle enquiries about why they feel that way. We might share our own similar experiences. We might show them photos of soft and cuddly dogs that could hardly fail to make them smile. Or we might just leave the topic alone.

What we don't do is to start heavy arguments about why dogs are wonderful, or tell them they should come with us to the local stray dogs' home. We don't give them heavy books about why a dog is man's best friend, or try to convince them of the pointlessness of having gerbils or hamsters as pets.

So.... why do so many Christians take a heavy line with people who attack the church, or their personal beliefs? Chances are that someone who is suspicious of Christianity has been injured in some way in the past by Christians. Perhaps they had a rigid and dogmatic upbringing, heavily disciplined for any infringement of Christian values. Perhaps they were spurned at a church they visited for dressing in scruffy jeans. Perhaps they've come across hypocritical Christians who say one thing and do another.

John Piper says:

Let us learn to discern whether the words spoken against us or against God or against the truth are merely for the wind--spoken not from the soul, but from the sore. If they are for the wind, let us wait in silence and not reprove. Restoring the soul, not reproving the sore, is the aim of our love.
(from "A Godward Life")

How right he is. When other people attack us, or our faith, or the church, or even God, it does no good at all to argue. Yes, we need to be sure what we believe and be prepared to explain it. But we need to do so from the perspective of the person we're talking to. Jesus told us that the entire law is summed up in the commands to love God, and to love our neighbours as ourselves. Loving our neighbour doesn't just involve doing practical things for them. It can mean listening to them at a deep level, hearing where they're coming from, understanding why they've formed the views they have. Maybe at some point we can introduce them to Jesus, but we're unlikely to to have any effect until we've shown them honest friendship and shown that we take them seriously.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Literal vs Metaphorical

I do not take every word of the Bible literally.

Before anyone brands me a heretic, let me explain. There's a lot of confusion about the word 'literally' these days. I've read and heard people say things such as:

My heart was literally in my mouth!

This book was so exciting, the pages literally turned themselves!

I can only assume that some people don't know what literally means. Because in fact what they mean is 'metaphorically'. Someone's heart remains literally where it's always been. Book pages do not literally turn themselves.

Why use the word 'literally' at all, though?

Recently in studying and discussing differences of personality type and temperament, one of the issues that cropped up was that of abstract vs concrete language. About 75% of the US population (and perhaps other populations too) tend to use mostly concrete language. The rest - and I'm among them - who prefer the abstract tend to use metaphors as a matter of course.

Now some metaphors have made it into everyday speech and are widely used by all. I used the phrase 'cropped up' and indeed 'concrete language' - hoping that anyone reading this will understand the meaning I'm giving to the words. And because a high percentage of fiction writers use metaphorical language, such phrases have crept into common usage too. If I say my heart was in my mouth, most English-speaker would know that I meant I was very tense and frightened.

But perhaps those who prefer the concrete style are actually uncomfortable with metaphor. So when they use such phrases, they have to add an extra word - and, bizarrely, choose 'literally' because they like the literal use of language and perhaps it truly felt as if their heart really was in their mouth.

Back to the Bible.

When people say they take every word literally, they usually mean they believe what's written in the Gospels about Jesus - including the miracles - and they believe in Creation as outlined in Genesis, and they take seriously things they perceive as commands to the church.

Well, so do I. But on the other hand, there are plenty of metaphors too: Jesus used them frequently. When he said he was the light of the world, or a gate to a sheepfold, or the bread of life, we know he meant them metaphorically. Sometimes he explained what he meant, but not always. So how do we know? Because of our own cultural experience, and what we've been taught.

However, our understanding may well be limited or even wrong. For many years I thought the gate to the sheepfold was something wooden with hinges. Then an elderly minister in a school assembly I was visiting told the relevant story to the children. He got some children up front to be a sort of hedge with a gap in it, and others to be the sheep. Then he himself got down on the floor, and lay across the gap. That, he told us, was what the 'gate' was like in ancient Israel. The shepherd really did - literally! - form the gate which both kept the sheep in, and kept any wolves or thieves out.

So some of the Bible may be more literal than we realise. Other parts may be less so. People come up with all kinds of explanations for some of the more confusing statements, and sometimes it's impossible to tell exactly what was meant, although usually we have a good idea.

We will never fully comprehend everything in the Bible while we're on earth. Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would help us remember his words, and understand them. As we read the Bible, and listen for the voice of God, we may well begin to understand better. It's also important to learn about the culture of the times, to read books written about the Bible, and to discuss our ideas and questions with our Christian brothers and sisters. But let's not be rigid. Too many battles and divisions within the Church have arisen because of verses taken out of context, or different interpretations. Jesus said that the first commandment was to love God, and the second was to love our neighbour. If we differ from our neighbour (or indeed our brother at the church on the other side of town) in some doctrinal issue, let's go with the principle of love and let the Holy Spirit work in us both.