Applying Plain Spoken Theology

A Plain Spoken Theology

The next several essays seek to accomplish two things at once. First, they are an attempt to apply the notions of plain spoken theology. Second, they are an attempt to present my own theological thinking. 

This exercise in application will concretize and make clearer this approach to renewing Christianity in a Post Christian culture. The following are the basic steps inherent in making Christian theological claims accessible and understandable to today’s minds and hearts.

Focus on Claims of Meaning and Wisdom

A fundamental presupposition of plain spoken theology is that religious claims, Christian ones included, are primarily about meaning and wisdom, and not about science, specific historical accounts, or detailed explanations of events. 

For example, the Genesis creation accounts are theological statements seeking to present various meanings – about the goodness of the created order, about the power of language, about the creativity of God, about the interconnectedness of being, and about humanity’s place within the world – rather than about timetables for the creation of the world or scientific insights into the origins of the universe. 

The meanings of the creation accounts remain, even if one dismisses the 6 day timeline or if one accepts evolutionary science and the findings of astrophysics. The authors of Genesis were not writing a science textbook – they were attempting to express their understanding of various meanings related to being.

Some theological claims concern wisdom about human behavior and action, yet should not be taken literally, with an understanding that today’s insights and understanding is often vastly different than that of the ancient authors. Consider the scriptural references to “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Should such references within the text be read as direct calls for corporal punishment of children? Or are they conveying a certain wisdom about the necessity of discipline, training, and formation in raising our children, understanding the inherent risks of laxity?

Attempting to Justify Our Claims – Toward an Evidence-Based Theology

Religion and theology involve more than claims of meaning and wisdom. Often, religiously minded people will make statements concerning understanding God’s intentions or will for a particular matter. Other times, claims may be made that events and circumstances are the result of divine influence.

Humility and reservation in such claims is highly advisable. The following example shows the value of humility in making such claims. Many loved one’s of survivors of the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, 2001, expressed their relief with claims that “God was watching over my loved one, or God saved this or that person, or God was good to us for granting a positive outcome.” The emotional content inherent in such a claim is easily to understand. However, continue applying the logic of such a claim, was God not good to those who died that day? Did God fail to save some  individuals? 

Other sorts of theological claims also require justification and explanation – at the very least, an attempt to put the claim into common sense, ordinary language. Another example, Christianity has traditionally included claims about Jesus coming back to earth after his ascension. This notion is often referred to as the Second Coming. How can this claim be explained in a way that someone unchurched in today’s culture might understand it’s meaning?

Such a task isn’t easy. And the approach taken will be highly influenced by our own theological convictions. Is the Second Coming a metaphor? If so, what’s it’s meaning? If you think the Second Coming is no longer a valid claim, then how do you explain the original meaning of those who made it? Do you believe that Jesus will literally return to earth? If so, can you elaborate a reasonable account of the likely mechanics of such? It’s fair to say that the stranger our claims sound to contemporary ears, the more justification and explanation they’ll need. 

Developing the Plot – Staying True to the Narrative

Our meanings and related wisdom should not be randomly generated employing a text-proofing style of theology where individual verses or stories are pulled from the context of the broader narratives within the scriptures.

The Bible is a diverse collection of writings. The Book of Job is likely the oldest text within the collection. The time range from Job to some of the New Testament writings is likely 1200 years or more. Arguing that there is a consistent narrative within such a range of texts requires a focus on meaning and not the details of the any particular story. 

Still, the texts were grouped together, selected from among many others, and arranged into a canon – because they were found to speak consistently on common themes, forming a coherent, if not broad, narrative.

This story has a cohesive plot – moving from creation to new creation – from covenant to covenant – and through kingdom to kingdom. As such, we believe we have a role to play in this story, a place within the unfolding of the Kingdom of God.

Our own theological claims should always reference aspects of the unfolding story, casting new light on existing themes, and never contradicting previous meanings. Part of the effort of plain spoken theology is remaining true to the ongoing narrative of the relationship between the divine and humanity. 

Leaving Room for Interpretation

Meaning is always personal – no one may impose meaning on another, nor insist that someone find a specific meaning in a particular situation. Additionally, none of us infallibility understand divine ways,  nor may claim to perfectly comprehend the original meanings of the authors of scripture.

Every Christian text and every claim requires interpretation, which is a personal and ongoing task. No two persons will interpret a text or claim in exactly the same manner. And this is a good thing, adding to the richness and reality of the ongoing Christian narrative. 

We must accept and grow comfortable with a broad and healthy diversity of interpretation within Christian theology, understanding and affirming a generous orthodoxy. Finally, we must seek to understand before we push our interpretations on others and acknowledge the necessity for charity in all things. 

Supernatural Claims

Our Post Christian culture is highly influenced by scientific methods as well as a naturalist understanding of reality. As such, supernatural claims are held in suspicion by most. This is odd, when one considers the ubiquity of astrology, good luck charms, crystals, psychics, fortune tellers, and new age thinking throughout the culture. Still, Christians must be sensitive when offering supernatural explanations for their claims and thinking. 

There are many ways to understand the meaning of the supernatural – natural distinction, and not all Christians favor supernatural explanations or hold to a supernatural world view. In general, plain spoken theology favors avoiding excessively supernatural explanations and justifications for our theological claims. 

Extended Example of the Application of Plain Spoken Theology

As a way of further explicating plain spoken theology, let us consider an example of its application in some detail. The example I’ve chosen in the account of the Hebrew’s freedom of slavery from Egypt found in the the Book of Exodus.

The familiar story needs little introduction. The Hebrews had followed Joseph into Egypt and grew in number. A new pharaoh enslaved them. They cried out to God who sent Moses to miraculously liberate them. They fled Egypt after the affliction of the plagues, escaping through the parted waters of the Red or Reed Sea. The story is reenacted at Passover seder tables each spring.

How do we interpret and analyze such a story? How do we explain and justify our claims related to the account? What is the meaning of all it? How best to present this account to a Post Christian audience?

Let us begin with exploring the meaning of the account. It appears centered on the claim that the Hebrew peoples were liberated from the oppressive power of the Egyptians, leaving them free to focus on living according to God’s ways, using their freedom for good. By focusing on the meaning of the story, we are putting aside claims of parted waters, plagues, and burning bushes – supernatural particulars not necessary for the validity of the meaning of the story – and likely troublesome to modern sensibilities.

Then, using Liberal hermeneutical techniques, we then dive deeper into the texts and their claims. Historical critical analysis begins to reveal that there is no archaeological evidence for the presence of large numbers of Hebrew slaves in Egypt, nothing mentioned in Egyptian historical accounts, no artifacts or traces. Sonar studies of the waters around Egypt show no evidence of drowned Egyptian chariots or weapons. Excavations turn up no trace of Hebrew culture or peoples in Egypt, and so on. Additionally, there are no signs of linguistic influence of the Egyptian language on Hebrew, or vice versa, something that would have been likely after the amount of years spent together as indicated in the story. 

We begin to realize we are dealing with a mythic account – a spiritualized retelling of some set of events that had massive significance for the Hebrew peoples. Delving further into the history, we find that Egypt did exercise undue influence on the Hebrews for an extended period of time. This hegemony appears to come to an abrupt end. Is the historical core of this biblical account a mythic retelling of this realities? It seems likely.

Returning to the original meanings of the account, are they still valid if the historical events vary from the textual telling? I’d answer yes, that the meanings of liberation, freedom remain. When one considers that the meaning of the Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim – meaning place of narrowness – the biblical account appears to be offering this event as one for cultural identity and moral instruction. To be a Jew is to leave behind the slavery of our narrowness (Egypt) and embrace our freedom and use it for goodness (the meaning of the Sinai event at Shavuot or Pentecost.)

Do we lose anything of significance if we understand and interpret the narrative this way? I don’t think so. Are the meanings revealed capable of appealing to modern minds? Absolutely. As theologian Marcus Borg explains, we may understand the historical deviations of the account, and still enter into the story with post-critical naivete, allowing the telling to continue to inform us of the underlying meanings. 

Therefore, the Exodus account is a rich narrative full of meaning conveyed in myth and metaphor, symbol and simile. The meanings of this story are reinforced every year at Passover seders and in the Christian celebration of Easter. 

Once the meaning of the account is apprehended, plain spoken theology advises we present that meaning in ways that contemporary listeners can understand. In this case, the themes of freedom and liberation from slavery are still vibrant and fresh today, therefore making their explication easier. If we wish to connect these meanings to other theological claims, or use them to make further points, the same simple, clear, approach recommends itself. Again, much of theology is using illative reasoning to explain our insights, describing what see and trying to help others see the same. 

Further, extracting the meaning of the Exodus narrative, leaves us able to put aside the supernatural claims of the story. We need not deny the claims, but we also don’t need them to explain the fundamental meaning of the account. 

Not all of the Biblical stories are spiritualized-mythic accounts, some blend more reliable historical fact with spiritual meaning. Study and training are required to know the difference. 

Can the Exodus account be claimed to be historical fact while still relying on plain spoken theology to help explain it to Post Christian audiences? Certainly. The same sort of analysis, the same care to use accessible language, the same focus on meaning all still apply. 

Each Christian will interpret the Exodus story differently. However, if we wish to extract the core meanings of such, arguing for their meaning and significance today, then plain spoken theology is of great value. 

Another example,

An Example

Let’s offer a quick example. And let’s start at the beginning – with the opening lines of Genesis. The first chapter is the creation account. So, what’s this story saying?

Those who think it’s talking about how the world was created are off mark. The story isn’t trying to convey scientific information about a six day creation. It’s going deeper than that – it’s trying to make statements about the meaning of reality – it’s goodness, it’s interconnectedness, it’s unity.

Well, what about our first parents, Adam and Eve. Real? Likely not. Picking fruit off forbidden trees? Nah. Again, the story is about meaning – it’s offering insights into human nature – our fickleness. It’s likely describing some sense of our development of moral awareness – it was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, after all.

How do we square this story with astrophysics and the big bang? How do we reconcile these accounts with evolution and emergence theory? Well, in one sense, we don’t, because we don’t have to – these mythic accounts are talking about something different – not how the world came to be, but why it did, and what is its meaning. One can affirm the big bang and evolution and still find truth in the Genesis narrative.

Many Christians already understand this, and this is good. Unfortunately, many don’t and get caught up in insisting that Eve comes from Adam’s rib, that humans were created on the sixth day, that Adam named the animals, and so on. Others argue slightly better, but get stuck trying to talk about our first parents and ensoulment, and original sin, and disobedience and the snake as Satan, and so on. Again, it’s a myth, and these assertions were made by the ancient authors to convey meaning, not describe the actual events.  Those who insist they do end up sounding foolish. And for good reasons.

If we’re going to sound like nutters when we tell our story, then we shouldn’t be surprised when people stop listening. We need to focus on the meanings of our claims and present them in plain language. Original sin? Complex stuff. And people don’t like the word sin. So, what are we talking about? If you argue it’s about apples, or even if you argue that its about disobedience, I fear you’re still missing the mark. However, if you start to argue that it’s about trying to understand why the world is imperfect and limited, why human beings can be so fickle and do incredibly evil things, if you try to talk about our sense of longing for a better world but our difficulty in achieving one – then, you’re likely on the right track.

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We will now proceed with an extended application of plain spoken theology, using it to retell and reposition the core Christian narrative. Again, one not agree with each of my interpretations – such are my own. The key is to focus on the manner of analysis and the general thrust of seeking a plain spoken approach to our theology.