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Primary Sources

This past spring Navy chaplain Lieutenant Commander Nathan Solomon learned that the Taliban had convinced local Afghani citizens that the Afghan soldiers deployed alongside Americans on a base in Helmand province weren’t Muslims. It wasn’t true, of course. But the rumor was destabilizing, for the purpose of the joint deployment is to build the citizens’ trust in the Afghan military so they can eventually be left in charge.

Chaplain Solomon responded by broadcasting the salah, the five daily prayers, through loudspeakers in the camp for the Muslim soldiers, but also overheard by the local people. But the real problem, he realized, was that many Muslim people didn’t (or couldn’t) read the Koran for themselves. Explains Brian Mockenhaupt in a story in the September 2011 Atlantic, “that makes it hard for them to deeply understand the Koran and the tenets of Islam,” so the Taliban can easily spread its version of “the duties of good Muslims.” Chaplain Solomon got educated imams to teach the Koran, helping local Muslims see that “Islam doesn’t say ‘Kill the people, bury IEDs in the road, and ambush the Afghan army.’ Islam doesn’t say ‘Do suicide attacks against other Muslims.’”

I’m proud that someone in our Armed Forces had such insight. It occurred to me that Afghan Muslims aren’t the only religious people who are out of touch with their primary sources.

I’m remembering a Sabbath School class I attended recently. The discussion was reassuring, but unchallenging. It was generally about Scripture and Ellen White, but served in tasty Adventist portions for and by the participants. The methodology, in summary:

•   “Ellen White says…,” without attribution or context

•   Edited bits of Scripture, also sans context, in the proof-text method favored by Adventist Bible studies

•   Points read directly from the lesson study, as though it were a final authority

•   General beliefs stated as deep wisdom, such as “The Lord helps those who help themselves” or “The way the world is nowadays, everyone thinks they should be free to do whatever they want.”

The result was not much actual learning, because there was little courageous thinking. Were someone to throw out an insight that was seen by even one or two class members at odds with a generally-accepted Adventist view, it would land like a brick. Like the Muslims mentioned above, we were mostly regurgitating ideas that were given to us, many good and useful—but some just as surely unhelpful, for the number and age of the congregants told of a dying congregation.

Unexamined beliefs serve us fine in ordinary circumstances, but fail us in crisis. That’s happening now. We face unprecedented challenges, yet find it nearly impossible to have any new discussions. And without that, we’ll not find any better answers. It seems to me one problem is that we’re frightened of delving deeply into our primary sources, so we’ve let ourselves be led in tight clockwise circles. No one knew Scripture as well as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. But there was little courageous Bible study. They repeated the interpretations they’d been given by earlier rabbis, so that to men who had most of the Torah memorized Jesus could truthfully say, “Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God.”

Given the limitations of our brains some of this is probably inevitable. For the sake of carrying on with life, we make simple doctrines of complex situations—and not only in religion. When I was a child most of us believed that America was all good, moral, and honest, while all Russians were lying, murderous and corrupt. Today many believe that all Muslims are terrorists who are keeping us from cheap oil that rightly belongs to us. Domestically, it is the conventional wisdom that Republicans always lower taxes and the national debt, that the needy and oppressed always benefit under Democrats, that the government could balance the national budget by cutting services that won’t affect me or my community, and that if you let the rich keep more of their money they’ll reliably invest it in strengthening the American middle class.

Ye do err, not knowing history, either.

Tension between change and stability has shaped Protestant history. On one hand, when anyone can read the Bible, anyone can create doctrine—and sometimes it seems most everyone has. The roughly 38,000 different Protestant denominational groups speak to that. Yet once those teachings are accepted, we get remarkably stable doctrinal islands where fresh, meaningful interaction with either the Word or the world declines. Any new take on the traditional views is anathema—never mind that every church (including ours) was started by people who set aside what they’d been told, read Scripture for themselves, and then thought the theologically unthinkable. We begin our religious journey by reading the Bible, and we end up still reading it, but no longer understanding it except through filters we’ve grown so accustomed to that we hardly know they’re there.

Those of us who attended Walla Walla College in the 60’s through the 80’s took Bible classes from Professor J. Paul Grove. His teaching method was to assign a chapter of Scripture and ask us to create what he called a “point chart”, which was our own short summary of each paragraph in the passage without recourse to commentaries or other writers. For many of us it was a revelation: that an ordinary person can read the Bible, and by noting themes and transitions, understand it without having to be told by someone else what it means! The Bible is, it turns out, a mine of accessible wisdom, and while we’re grateful for Bible scholars who can dig deeper, there are plenty of diamonds right on the surface for us ordinary people to gather.

Of course, we cannot be thinking new thoughts all the time, nor constantly doing the untested and untried, for how would we ever get anything done? But I do wish we would be a little more diligent in exploring the primary sources of our faith, rather than defaulting to pathways already marked out for us. The Bible and the writings of Ellen White are radical documents that have occasionally turned the world on its head, not the tamed, tranquilized, tightly-girdled things that we churchmen have made them. If we’d look beneath the overlay of a century of organizational interpretation we might again find them living documents, with wisdom for today that we didn’t know was there. Through fresh eyes we might see that both sources have more to say than is summed up in 28 Fundamental Beliefs, a 4-week evangelistic series, or a fat five-level organizational structure.

And could we set aside the demand that we shoehorn every word into the received framework, we might come to terms with the rich and fascinating contradictions in these sources, and be able at least to question the usefulness of some of the word-literal exegeses we repeat. We may also learn that through its history the doctrinal stream of Seventh-day Adventism hasn’t run straight and whirlpool-free like water in a concrete canal, meaning variations on what a Seventh-day Adventist is are inevitable and necessary.[1]

More basic is to ask whether we might have let the doctrines that define us, such as the Sabbath, Creation, or the Second Coming, eclipse deeper and more foundational Biblical principles: that we must be humble in our doctrine making for we cannot, and never will, grasp the fullness of our Infinite God; that people are  therefore to be respectful toward and patient with one another even when they cannot agree; and that the church fails when it is so opinionated that anyone who doesn’t see it our way is shown the door.

[1] This isn’t easy. As we’ve seen on this forum, anything out of the mainstream is frightening to some. But their continued, impassioned participation here, rather than sticking to those forums that agree with them, proves what William Hazlitt once wrote: “When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest.” Even traditionalists like to be where new thoughts are being expressed, though the only response they muster is anonymous outrage.

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