THE ART OF LEARNING (THE BIBLE (and politics))

As both of the readers who come to this blog with any regularity already know, I am chewing on Lee Camp’s book, Scandalous Witness, in recent weeks.  These readers already know that I am enthused about it, but also know that I am quibbling with some bits (though I have not exhaustively described the things I am enthused about or the bits I quibble with to this point).  I have NO DOUBT that my opening paragraph here amounts to a welcome mat for the next exit on the freeway of blog reading.  If this is of no interest to you, then click off now and join the millions – even billions – of people who also don’t care for it.

Thanx for stopping by!

Now… bye, bye.

Okay.  For you, the one left, I probably should do a psyche profile on you, but I don’t want to discourage you any further.  I sense, though, that the things I want to talk about in this post are quite important AND have relevance to our shared world far beyond reading a couple of books or the upcoming presidential election.  However, I in no way claim to be the best person to address them.  But, I am glad to have you, so let’s move forward now.

Here is the thing I want to explore in this post:  The art of learning, of unlearning, and of coming to terms with meaning and truth.

I sense that as a thesis statement, that is really vague.  So, let me relate it to Camp and his book and the election a little bit and see if I can sort this out.

Lee Camp is providing us modern, American “Christians” a lens through which to view our world and the place of politics therein as well as our place within the politics.  He is revealing, showing, manifesting the Jesus Way amid the mist and clouds of so much socio/political upheaval.  He is sorting things out which have become hard for American “Christians” to rightly sort out with sensitivity to the Lordship, purpose(s), and goal(s) of God’s Kingdom Rule vis-a-vis American politics and culture.

That is an ambitious idea, I think.  It’s ambitious, especially considering the depth of division and hostility partisan politics have created.  American’s are not very patient with one another anymore.  Fear, hatred, meanness, rudeness, and other such ugliness have gripped our public discourse, and sober-minded, caring, patient listening, compromising, and shared interests are all but gone.  And in the midst of this, American “Christians” have largely (not entirely, but to an overwhelming extent) chosen a side, enabling and empowering the fear, hatred, meanness and rudeness and so forth.

Camp gives us reason to “pull out of that whore, Babylon.”  He doesn’t merely cite the passage, point at it, and say, “There!  The Bible said it, and that settles it.”  No.  Camp reasons our way there, warning us not to take sides with evil, division, and strife, but to seek the peace of the city where we are planted instead.

All this sorting means we need to come to some shared, foundational ideas.  We need to establish some fundamental, bedrock elements of our discussion and build on them carefully.  But in the mist and confusion of our times, in the cloudy worldview and the dust kicked up in our field of vision by so much fervor and animosity as we find in our public discourse anymore, we may find that some of the things we are holding on to are not what they seemed.  We might have gone into the tool shed seeking a flashlight by which we could then search for the screwdriver we need, but in the darkness we have taken hold of a hammer instead.  The hammer will not light our way to find the tool we ultimately want, but you sure can hit stuff with it, and in our frustration, we might be tempted to do that.

Someone else sees us through the mist holding a hammer and hears it banging on stuff, things breaking, and wonders why on earth you would do that.  Don’t you need a flashlight in these conditions?  But just asking that of a frustrated person holding a hammer might just “set them off” all the more.

Bang! Bash!! Bonk!!!

Someone else might find the flashlight, but the batteries are dead.  Suddenly, the flashlight serves as a hammer!  Pretty soon, everyone in the tool shed is full of people hitting stuff in the dark with hammers and other objects, some of which they don’t even know what the object is, getting more and more frustrated, and this illustration, as absurd as it is, still betrays the complexity of the real problem AND the depth of the absurdity really at work here.

However, it does, in rather simple terms, illustrate that if you want a screwdriver, none of this is going to achieve that goal at all.  Each person in the tool shed absolutely must come to terms with the fact that they are not actually working with the real tool they really need.  In some cases this will mean discovering that you are holding a flashlight and not a hammer … which is now two steps removed from the issue you really want to be dealing with.

Okay, let’s get out of the proverbial tool shed.  Here’s the thing: We have some UNlearning to do as well as learning.  This is true of all manner of arts and sciences.  The theories that advanced cancer research in the 1950s, 60s, 70s, and 80s were very important, and contributed much to the elimination and survival of cancer, but the theories developed on the 1990s, 2000’s, and 2010s, in some cases, required the jettisoning of some of the theories that had previously served the science so well.

Maybe we should even think of the Pony Express from the old days.  No matter how fast the first pony in the circuit, that pony had to be changed out because the trip was just too far for one pony to make.  The message would have to change out ponies along the way.

When I was in school, one of my instructors asked us students to read a little book called The Art of Teaching the Bible: A Practical Guide for Adults, by Christine Eaton Blair.  The premise was that in modern America (maybe other western nations too, actually), the tendency is/was for children and youths to get the bulk of their Bible education in Sunday Schools and youth groups.  The average age for this education to cease was about 14.  Of course, in more modern/post modern times, that has become the age at which more and more people drop out of church altogether too.

But for those who stay with the church as life-long believers (presumably), this means that the adults main means of any Bible education for the bulk of such population is Sunday sermons accompanied (one would hope at least this much) by bestselling Christian books.

This means that the larger bulk of the ever-shrinking adult church population relies on Bible education from childhood – early childhood at that.  Most of the more abstract doctrines of The Trinity, or of Justification by Faith, or Original Sin and so forth go almost entirely unknown to the church, and the bits that are known, the action/adventure stories such as Moses and the Exodus, David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, filtered through a small child’s eyes and understanding, are pretty much all that is left serving the church and of loving God with all of our mind (as well as heart and strength).

One of the sensitivities Blair’s book addresses is that adult Christians need to have continuing Bible education, but that will entail some UNlearning before the new learning can take hold.  Her book seeks to guide that delicate process as respectfully as possible.  Just acknowledging there is such a phenom is delicate.  Finding it at work in your own life of faith is all the more humbling.

But humility is the name of the game.  We need not bog down in an any-thing-goes, free-for-all revamping of everything we believe.  If we are like that, we may well get tossed around by every wind and wave of doctrine, but even Ephesians 4 will tell us that we combat that problem with maturity.  A humble maturity coupled with a mature humility will be important for our knowledge of God.

It also is important for finding tools in a dark tool shed.

It would serve America well in our politics too, and that is part of what “seeking the peace of the city” always entails.  God’s people are God’s answer to the world’s problems.  Wanna know what is wrong in America today?  Well, there is cancer, heart disease, earth quakes and forest fires to be sure, but down at the root of it all is a lack of God’s Rule.  (Even earth quakes and dry trees adhere to God’s Rule, but if God’s people (his image bearers) fail to represent him, there will be no peace – certainly not in the politics.

So, Camp’s book requires us grown up Christians to do some UNlearning as part of our learning.  What exactly needs UNlearned?  Well, there are a number of things.  But for this post, I merely want to note the phenom.  As we sort out in what has become something of the typical, modern, American “Christian’s” worldview, and it requires we have some humility to look closer at that tool we have in our hands and discover it is not the screwdriver we were looking for, on the one hand, and all the banging, bashing, and bonking we are doing with it like a hammer, will not address the situation that calls for a screwdriver, on the other.

This still leaves open the possibility that Camp is mistaken too.  He may be right in the broad strokes about the phenom – that we have the wrong tool in our hands and we are not using it the way the right tool should be used either, but he may be wrong in telling us we are holding a flashlight and not a hammer.  He is peering into the mist too, and he might not be able to see that we actually are holding a real hammer that he perceives is a flashlight being used as a hammer.

But some of THAT would really just be incidental.  If what we really need is a screwdriver and to stop bashing and start twisting the screws instead, then even though he has some details misconstrued, he is still plenty right in the big picture.  (Even this is conceivably debatable, but I happen to think Camp is either right on target or a lot closer than most, so I am going to give him the benefit of this doubt.)

In my estimation, Camp is misconstruing the term “religion” in his book.  He manages to make a good point anyway, but the more I read and re-read his book the more I think I understand his use of that word, and I believe it to be, in the final analysis, a misuse.  Perhaps he is deploying a popular usage (which I think he is) and working with it at that level, but he splits hairs later in the book over other terms, and so I think he needs to address his use of the word “religion” with better clarity.

But that could be me.  I might be wrong.  I don’t think so, and I am willing to lay out my case and see what holds up under scrutiny, but then I would need some studied discussion partners to help discern that more clearly at that level.  As it is, I have only myself to discuss this with.  But I will do my best to come at it humbly.  Practically no one is 100% right about everything they say.  This goes for scholars at the top of the profession all the way down to the slave girl at the millstone.  However, we may presume, with a strong measure of confidence, that the more disciplined thinkers come closer to the target than those less disciplined – in general.

This kind of observation gives Camp the benefit of the doubt, not me.  I acknowledge that too.

But there are other elements of Camp’s book that I wrestle with, elements perhaps I must UNlearn or perhaps he must UNlearn.  This also is hard to determine.  Here in the dark tool shed, I have a perspective he does not have, yet almost no peers with which to review.  He has the disciplined credentials and the peer review process, but even he is making a case that the larger pool of humanity and of thinking minds which make up the American politics AND within that, especially, the church, there are some huge overarching problems with almost everyone’s understanding.  He is claiming that his vantage point will correct the vision of the masses.  I am claiming mine provides some corrective to his.

Again, I don’t wish to open a door to an anything-goes, free-for-all critique here.  Nor do I wish to demolish his work.  I think, in the broad brush strokes, Camp’s book is invaluable!  But I am hitting a few snags along the way, and I think my offerings might help the otherwise really good lens he is providing.

I have 3 criticisms – having read the whole book once.  I reserve the right to change my mind as I study it closer, but having breezed through the whole book now and the opening chapter several times, I think (#1) the way Camp uses the word “religion” short-changes the word and his thesis, (#2) his lack of thorough examination and use of both the word and concept of “LOVE” and (#3) the lack of meaningful engagement with the theological concept of image bearing inhibit Camp’s thesis from reaching a actual, tangible goal.

Maybe Camp does not want to take the book that far.  I wonder why not, if that is the case, but it is possible that he wants merely to correct the lens through which we look at the world (and politics especially) and then leave it up to us to map out that world.  If that is the case, then his goal is rather open-ended.  If that is the case, I think his book achieves its goal more or less.

But even Camp claims that for Christians world history is aimed at a goal.  If he is right about that, then equipping Christians to see the world more clearly ultimately implies we need to see that goal too.  What exactly are we going to use the screwdriver on and to what ends?  He does a great job of calling us to put down the wrong tools and pick up the right one(s), but what for?  Otherwise, why even be in the tool shed at all?

So, let me back up and devote just a paragraph or two to each of the 3 items I list above.

After studying on it and reading it over several times, I have decided that by the term “religion,” Camp is referring to the notion of private, personal piety – especially of a pie-in-the-sky kind.  He says that Christianity is not a religion, but it is a politic.  Whereas he does flesh out his meaning of the word “politic,” even there I sense he might define it a bit more concretely than he does.

I, of course, believe Christian faith is a religion, a religion which happens to not be separated from politics at all.  But Camp claims otherwise.  Yet, I think he is using the word significantly different from the way I do.  Camp, like me, rejects the idea that our Christian faith is merely private and only consists of things having to do with other worldly faith, especially “going to heaven when you die.”  I reject all that too, but I don’t use the word “religion” to convey that idea.  And while I, like Camp, see Christian faith as a public matter impinging on public and this-worldly history, I don’t reduce that to the word “politics.”

One other aspect of this criticism, one which to my way of thinking appears lost on Camp, I think many people today are attempting to have it both ways, and not one way or the other.  It is not logical, but that has not stopped people of faith, not that I can tell.  I believe I am old enough to recall a time when many, if not most, “Christians” attempted to live out this other-worldly, pie-in-the-sky, go-to-heaven-when-I-die, private, piety AND thus believed “politics didn’t matter” and that “this world would just go up in judgment flames at the end anyway.”  I think I was born into THAT “Christian” mentality and had to that a long time ago.  But I believe plenty of “Christians” have yet to UNlearn that stuff yet still feel compelled to join the coercive political agenda of the Right and thus try to order this world which is doomed for judgment through policy and partisan politics anyway.  It doesn’t make a bit of sense, but that is what I think I see in many of my “brothers and sisters” anyway, yet Camp never pays any attention to this stuff at THAT level.

Moving on to my second criticism: Camp’s book lacks an agenda of LOVE.

I did read the book from cover to cover once, and I breezed through it when I did.  So I point this out somewhat tentatively.  I am working my way through the book yet again, and I think it is possible that perhaps there is a paragraph or a page or two in there somewhere which highlights Christian love, the love of God, and how this love might order the world, and I might have just missed it.  However, I am thinking that even if that paragraph, page, or chapter exists in Camp’s book and just escaped my attention the first time through, I kinda think it is a big enough deal that should be addressed so deeply (if not pervasively) that missing it would be very hard to do.

The LOVE of God is not just other worldly, not just oriented for when we die, and not just some private matter.  It is for THIS world, and in a very mysterious way impacts this world, historically and publicly.  LOVE is a politic.  It is religious too, I believe, if St. James is to be believed (Jas. 1:27 (if not all of chapter 1 and 2 with it)).  God, in Jesus, comes to take the crown of his own people in LOVE.  This is all about LOVE and politics.  And it seems to me that the separation of church and state in America is now completely reflected in the separation of LOVE and politics.  It seems to me that Camp should have a lot to say about this, but if he said anything, I missed it on my first read through.  (Hope I find it and need to come back here and correct this observation.)

Lastly, I think that image bearing is all about politics, history, LOVE and public relations as well as private.  Perhaps Camp could produce a completely worthwhile book with no in depth analysis or even references to humans bearing the image of God, but as I have studied on these things in my career, I find it indispensable.  I feel sure that at the very least, Camp’s book would be enhanced dramatically with a chapter or at least some reference to this all through.  In the beginning of Genesis, God creates the humans in his image and gives them dominion and rule over creation.  The image bearers sort out the creation and do so largely by virtue of the image they bear, and this has everything to do with history and thus politics.

Of course, the criticisms I bring to Camp’s book are just as counterintuitive, I think, as the rest of his observations.  If this stuff were just sitting there being overly obvious, then it would probably be easy to get it all right, and our national politics would not be such a mess.

Well, there is a lot left unsaid in this post, which might be surprising considering how long it has grown.  But I need to quit while it is still somewhat manageable.  I doubt strongly this post gets much, if any, traction with readers, but these are matters I would very much like to discuss – especially with someone else who has read Camp’s book and feels it’s impact.

I hope my observations and critique don’t take anything away from Camp’s message.  I hope, on the contrary, to ENGAGE the otherwise very fine and skilled theses he develops, to internalize this stuff for myself and help others in the world in which we share to engage this stuff too – maybe even… dare we say… make a difference with our lives.

I expect to write at least one more post on this book where I develop more the thoughts that really jazz me, challenge me, and that I find increasingly valuable.  But for now, this will do.

If you are reading this far… please… let’s talk.

3 comments

  1. agentdc · September 23

    My personal experience growing up in the 1950’s (as I remember it) in “Sunday school” was that Bible knowledge was emphasized more than love for God and others. I remember sometime probably in my 30’s or 40’s finally realizing that the Lord’s prayer said I needed to forgive others (along with the parable of the ungrateful servant who was forgiven much and then did not forgive a fellow servant little). I began to realize that harboring dislike for those who had “wronged” me was wrong and that I was much more a sinner against others than being sinned against. I think it was quite a while later that I came to believe that if I had lived during the American revolution that it would have been wrong for me as a Christian to kill others for the cause of independence from England. There is evil in the world and it seems to me that WW2 came closest to a “justifiable war” if there is such a thing. The hatred between liberals and conservatives approaches that I have read about between sides in WW2. The answer is to realize that Jesus saves and to follow His teachings on love of God and others and to realize this present world is not our home. I believe the church should stay out of politics today as it did in the early church. I have not gotten Lee Camp’s book yet so I don’t know if this comment applies. Thank you for your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. agentdc · September 23

    I should have said the hatred between SOME liberals and SOME conservatives approaches that of SOME on opposite sides in WW2. I believe and hope that the large majority on both sides are shocked by the unhealthy level of anger and contempt of hopefully a small minority on each side. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agent X · September 23

      I started writing this post, BECAUSE I find Camp’s book so much to chew on, and quickly realized my post was getting convoluted. I am deciding that Camp’s book (especially the introduction and a few bits in the middle) kinda is convoluted too. But this is a convoluted subject. How to iron it all out? Not sure I am up for it.

      That said, there are parts of that book that I find very helpful and unique.

      Anyway, to be honest, I really didn’t expect anyone to actually read the whole thing. I kinda hoped so, but I did not expect it. I would be happy to discuss it with others reading it too. I think that could help.

      Thank you for reading! Thanx for your comment. Much appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

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