Delivered at Ames UCC
on January 15, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
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A long time ago, it seems now, I taught a course on rhetoric and argumentation. Throughout the semester we went over different types of arguments and logical fallacies: how to make a parallel case, how to avoid a straw man, for example. The project for the term was to take a racial or ethnic conflict—and I came up with 72 different ones ranging from reparations in the United States to Greece’s treatment of the Cypriots—and lay out the arguments on both sides, then make a case for one side.
This required research. And, as the Internet was just starting to be widely accessible, it required teaching the students how to assess if an online source was valid because we were learning that anyone could and would post anything. The criteria were authority, purpose, format and publisher, relevance, date, and documentation.
If only the Internet came with those criteria posted every time we turn on a browser. If only we had to accept those terms with each and every click and scroll. Because twenty years later, the validity of online information is a moot point. Truth has taken such a hit over the last year that the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year for 2016 was “post-truth”:
..relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.1
But here’s something that has been eating at me even more than the collapse of credibility: Post-truth sounds a lot like my theology and that of our branch of the Christian family tree.
For example, one of the stories we did not hear in this year’s cycle with Jesus is his trial in the wilderness. According to the story, Jesus is alone for forty days, beset by ha-satans, the forces of non-being. They have a powerful conversation in which Jesus only responds with scripture, demonstrating a fierce loyalty to God. We know because we have a word-for-word account of their dialogue, as if Luke secured a transcript of this solitary experience forty years after Easter.
This is not possible.
To go back to the criteria for credibility, yes, the Bible has authority and an identifiable sense of purpose. It is very relevant to the issue of God by way of the prophets and Jesus. The format and publisher were both pretty inconsistent and messy in the early days, though. The dates are debatable and the documentation almost nil.
If the criteria for accepting the Bible as a source of truth are the same as those I taught my students for the Internet, then we are fools for Christ, indeed, and not in the good way Paul means.
And yet I believe the story tells the truth, as I suspect you do, too. So how can we say it is true?
JESUS IN THE SYNAGOGUE
Luke tries to help us out. In our reading today, Luke describes a group of people in a synagogue who are confronted with a decision of whether to accept something offered as truth or not, kind of like us.
To recap, at this stage of Luke’s telling, Jesus has been born, demonstrated a precocious talent for teaching as a youth, been baptized by John and blessed by God, and had that wilderness trial. Having passed the trial, he teaches in synagogues throughout Galilee, then travels back to Nazareth, where his parents raised him.
Now in his hometown synagogue, Jesus is handed a scroll to read. It is a portion of Isaiah that depicts not only the nation of Israel being redeemed from occupation and exile, but God’s Jubilee. The Jubilee is referenced in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It is, essentially, a year in which all debts are forgiven, land ownership is reallocated, and the indentured are freed. It is not a metaphorical or spiritual leveling of mountains and straightening of roads, but real-life social and economic equivalents.
Jesus says he is the one through whom God is going to make that happen. The people respond with “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Jesus then goes on the defensive and it all escalates into an attempt on his life, another example of Luke’s use of foreshadowing.
Although the people do initially question whether Joseph’s kid can be a prophet for God, that is not the reason they go after him. He is not run off because his is considered a liar. Instead, they are angry that he has not cared for his home town as well as they have heard he has cared for Galilee. They are angry that he has been withholding of blessings he has offered elsewhere. So it seems that the people must believe the truth of the accounts of Jesus’ blessings, even though he is just Joseph’s son, but can’t believe he truly would not do the same for them.
Luke is using the people of Nazareth to assure us that Jesus is a reliable source, that what Jesus says is true. Basically we are being asked to accept the authority of the Nazarenes as proof of Jesus’ own statement. That is the fallacy of an appeal to authority. Just because the people were there, does not mean they were right.
So not only do I lack a logical argument for how the Bible can be factually wrong but still true, but the Bible itself commits every kind of logical fallacy possible: argument from repetition, begging the question, moral high ground fallacy, appeal to emotion, appeal to poverty, and, of course, the divine fallacy, which is arguing that when something is unbelievable it must be because of divine or alien action.
Almost nothing in our Bible is logically true. It is the epitome of post-truth and I would have to reject it as a source for a paper in my class. The Bible itself fails to make a rhetorically strong argument for God.
But still I am with the Nazarenes .I still believe it is true that Jesus is one of God’s means for Jubilee.
I think I’ve gotten myself all worked up over nothing.
As citizens of America, I do think we have to be vigilant in our assessment of sources of new and truthful information, especially the truths we really like. The same can be said for us as readers of the Bible—if only the parts we like are true, then we are just worshipping ourselves.
But the Bible isn’t worried about its own truth. If it was, it would be a lot more consistent and less contradictory. We wouldn’t have four different gospels. The Bible must have a different parameter for assessing quality than rhetorical science. Faith is not a science.
When Jesus was tempted by power and wealth, scripture was his shield. When he didn’t give people just what they wanted and when they wanted it, he did not massage the message. He just moved on, looking for an audience that was less self-centered, ready to hear his good news even if it was not good for them.
This weekend our nation honors The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King is not revered because he won a debate about the truth of the Bible. His fight on behalf of faith was for sanitation workers’ rights and against the racial imbalance of our military draft. Dr. King briefly called out white churches and Christians, who themselves stayed home and silent, but when they did not want to hear him, he moved on, too.
And in all of that Dr. King was faithful to the holiness in this book. He was, truly, a disciple of Jesus and an agent of God’s Jubilee.
So I’m not going to worry any more about making a good argument for the truth I encounter in the Bible, and I hope that you won’t either. We are not, after all, college students just trying to make a grade.
Instead, Iet us let the Bible help us to assess the quality of our faith: Are we rejecting the temptations of ego? Are we making God’s blessings all about us? Or are we learning together, with Jesus and the prophets, how to incarnate love, jubilantly?