Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Jesus Tea-Strainer, or the Jesus Poisonous-Seed-Strainer? Or Maybe the Jesus Gold-Sifter

Andrew Wilson just posted a piece on the Theology Matters blog, "The Jesus Lens, or the Jesus Tea-Strainer?", which begins as follows:
I had an interesting series of debates with Steve Chalke recently, on Scripture, the Old Testament, the atonement and sexuality. There are all sorts of things I could say about them (and I probably will, in time), but for me the most striking feature of Steve's presentation was his continual reference to "the Jesus lens". In his view, the Bible should be read through "the Jesus lens", that is to say, in the light of God's self-revelation in Jesus. I agree. But he then goes on to argue that this enables us, and in fact requires us, to correct all sorts of things that the texts actually say, particularly those which involve wrath, death and sexual ethics. Reading through the Jesus lens, for Steve, involves reading a difficult text - say, one about picking up sticks on the Sabbath, or destroying the Canaanites, or Yahweh pouring out his anger - figuring that Jesus could never have condoned it, and then concluding that the text represents a primitive, emerging, limited picture of God, as opposed to the inclusive, wrath-free God we find in Jesus. Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.
Wilson goes on to list a series of biblical passages in which the Gospel authors attribute to Jesus angry words that Wilson takes to be in the spirit of the wrathful God that Chalke wants to reject.

There are several concerns I have about Wilson's post:
his too-easy conflation of progressive Christocentric hermeneutics with postmodernism, his caricatured understanding of the "Jesus Lens" approach that Steve Chalke and those like him favor, and--most seriously--his failure to distinguish between the angry rhetoric sometimes attributed to Jesus in Scripture and the genocidal acts sometimes attributed to God.

It is one thing to note, in all honesty, that the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels got angry, and expressed that anger in hyperbolic outburst against those who neglected the poor and in other ways failed to live up to the demanding love ethic. But to interpret those outbursts out of the context of the whole gospel story, in which Jesus preached love and forgiveness and died on a cross for the sins of all--including those who were the targets of his angry outbursts--well, that is another matter.

As to the conclusion Wilson reaches based on such an out-of-context reading of these texts, to the effect that the Jesus of Scripture "fits well" with the unfiltered whole of the Scriptures, with all the horrific parts included (the ones that Chalke--wisely, in my view--wants to treat as reflecting an evolving understanding of God within the Scriptures)--well, let's just say that a lot of arguments need to made and critically assessed before such a conclusion is anywhere in the remote ballpark of having any promise of ever enjoying a hint of warrant.

Let me approach my main concern here by looking at the last sentence of the passage quoted above. Here it is again:
Not so much a Jesus lens, then, as a Jesus tea-strainer: not a piece of glass that influences your reading of the text while still leaving the text intact, but a fine mesh that only allows through the most palatable elements, while meticulously screening out the bitter bits to be dumped unceremoniously on the saucer.
Wilson means here to offer an unappealing metaphor, but word choice can often influence how attractive or unattractive a metaphor seems. There's a difference between a mechanism that sifts out what we take to be unpalatable, and a mechanism that sifts out moral horror.

Let us imagine a Chistocentric hermeneutic whereby moral horrors attributed to God are set aside as unworthy of the God revealed through Jesus. It's not a tea-strainer sifting out the bits we don't like, but a poisonous-seed-strainer, straining out the bits that are objectively awful--not the "bitter bits" we don't want to deal with because of culturally situated sensibilities, but the seeds that grow poisoned fruit, the things that when treated seriously by the body of believers tend to have ruinous effects.

Talk about objective evil isn't popular among postmodernists, but Christian progressives like me aren't postmodernists, so we don't care. We think some things are objectively, timelessly evil. We think Jesus helped to shed light on these timeless evils, transforming and refining our ethical systems through his singular witness. And we think that in the light of that witness, certain Scriptural narratives turn out to attribute objective moral evils to God. We think these narratives reflect the errors of primitive peoples, as opposed to honestly describing the nature of God. And we think that those who insist on treating them as honest descriptions of the nature of God are doing something very, very dangerous.

But maybe it's even more helpful to shift metaphors. Consider Martin Luther's preferred metaphor for the Bible. It is like the manger: it contains the baby Jesus, but it also contains straw. And if we refuse to attend to this difference, we're in trouble.

Straw is a milder metaphor than poison. The straw in the manger offers some softness in which the baby can lie more comfortably. But it could be very bad to mistake the straw for the baby. At best, you're going to waste milk by trying to feed it to the straw. At worst, there won't be enough milk left for the baby. The baby is starved because the straw is treated as warranting the same level of attention and devotion.

This metaphor leads me to think about yet another one. Maybe what we need isn't a strainer to eliminate the bad bits from the Scriptures. If Luther's basic approach is right, maybe what we need is a gold-sifter, something that helps us to focus in on what really matters. Maybe the right hermeneutic is the one that helps us identify what deserves our attention and devotion.


  1. Eric-

    Any way you sift it, it is just another demonstration of how morality come from us, not from scripture, from sky-gods, etc. We make god in our image and out of our moral ideals. And then tell our kids it is "real".

  2. Hi Eric,

    I agree completely with your assessment here regarding Mr. Wilson’s post. However, I would note that not all postmodernists reject an objective morality per-se. While they may not articulate it, for instance as an evangelical or fundamentalist Christian might, people like John Caputo, Jamie Smith, and those in the Radical Orthodox school of thought hold to types of objective morality--and they all consider themselves postmodernists. I just think it helpful to distinguish between the more radical secular postmodernists and those of the type I mention. Such needs “sifting” as well. A very good post though—thank you.

  3. Burk, the main issue is not where morality comes from. Not even the issue whether morality (moral facts, moral values, etc) exists or not. The main issue is that in a mechanical world (which is how naturalists believe reality is) the concept of morality is meaningless. In a mechanical world there can only be feelings, ideas, talk - we associate with morality. But no morality, not even as a meaningful concept about something that might have existed but in fact doesn’t.

    But we plainly see that morality is a meaningful concept. Therefore, either naturalism is false ore else our basic cognitive faculties deeply misguide us.

    A range of arguments is appearing (the most famous is Plantinga’s EAAN) which appear to show that if naturalism is true then we are fools. In the sense that if reality is mechanical then our brain is fooling us every second of our waking lives.

  4. Hi, Dianelos-

    Good to hear from you again! But I have to say, your argument is simply unbelievable. I assume that you accept that, even as mechanical beings, we have feelings, and develop goals, intentions, needs, etc. That is incontravertable as a matter of fact. This all leads to a felt form of meaning, as well as to the desire to regulate the feelings and behaviors of others in our social system by way of morals, so that we can bring our goals and feelings into mutual alignment. It shouldn't be such a complicated concept, and sits perfectly well in a naturalist worldview.

    But reading again, I have to say I can not even understand what you are trying to say.. in a mechanical world there can be feelings, but there can not be morality? How comes that? Perhaps you could explain how you get from A to B in this argument.

    If I were you, I would be quite wary of setting much store by Plantinga's arguments. He assumes that naturalism and evolution yield wildly unreliable cognitive faculties. But the fact of the matter is that evolution is quite well-understood to yield very good faculties.. as easily appreciated with vision, but obviously also true with cognition in general. The important caveat is that we are adapted for cognition of evolutionarily important things- other people, food, threats. We are indeed fools when it comes to cognition of out-of-scale phenomena, where science becomes our helpmeet, and religion & superstition our primitive failures.

    But it is quite true in other ways that our brain fools us all the time, systematically. Color is its invention, and you can readily appreciate that your sense of time itself is very labile, dependent on emotional state, etc. These are all issues to work through, and the way to do that is... via science. When it comes to morality, no problem is really apparent. Morality depends on our feelings and mutual forebearance, not on any cognition of abstract objective entities. It is fundamentally subjective, and thus continues to evolve as our conscousness and social experience expand.