If you’re in a church service with me (or a non-religious lecture otherwise), you might see me tapping on my phone. It’s not because I’m not paying attention, but because I am: I use a bible app, take digital notes, and if something’s well said, I’ll tweet it immediately. This is a few steps ahead of the pen and paper notes and illustrations I’ve made during presentations for most of my life.
Sometimes a sermon comment also triggers a thought series. So it was this morning.
1: “If you’re going to understand scripture, you basically have to journey into someone else’s mind.” — GP, @newhopefulton #humility
The minister made this point while sharing some background on the “lost sheep” parables in the Christian gospels. It wasn’t his main point, but it helped to frame the information he shared about shepherds that the original auditors may have been more familiar with. More importantly, it reminded the congregation that the bible was not written as a single book nor originally addressed to them.
2. Challenge w/ “journeying into someone else’s mind”: all those someones are long dead + there’s limited consensus on how they lived.
I didn’t grasp the legitimate controversies in biblical history, archaeology anthropology, linguistics, and interpretation until I started reading on my own. Though this discussion does happen in many mainstream seminaries, in churches it’s much less likely. This is a loss, not just for the local congregation, but also for the broader religious fellowship and for the quality of conversations we can have together. Instead one might hear that pesky debates develop only because Those People, who are Wrong, are stupid, haven’t read the right books yet, or have been deceived by Satan. These rationalizations mean that there’s “debate,” but not debate: whatever information could challenge our presumptions is automatically devalued and so never merits review.
Of course no debate is possible if people aren’t working with the same fact base: failure to deal with data means defaulting on conversation about the data… no common sense can emerge. But once people have caught up, legitimate debate arises. And there’s no resolution because the data sources are no longer alive. The people who could’ve settled our questions about intentions, phrasing, explicit teachings and silences, and who could have fielded constructive criticism about their positions and those positions’ implications, are not here to speak for themselves or engage in a building dialogue with us. Traditions have also done a weak job of representing founders and their concepts without setting layers of cultural and institutional bias over those representations along the way.
Beyond what’s going on with the sources or the traditions, though, it’s the rarest of readers who isn’t infused with contemporary cultural or institutional bias in any way. I don’t know anyone who isn’t. I’m not myself: I know I’ve been shaped too. This knowing has consequences.
3. Often what we learn through archaeology and history doesn’t affirm our pet theories about the texts or the characters in it.
When we read texts like the Christian bible, we can expect to read the framing stories that communities have found valuable over time. We can expect to trace the cultural and institutional biases that emerged, were reinforced, and were challenged over the same period. But we cannot expect a single story about humankind or our religion of choice, and should no more expect ideological coherence from the text than we’d expect it from a cable reality show.
4. What saves scriptures and sacred texts for me is the premise that wisdom literature is not technical writing.
5. Treating technical writing like wisdom literature corrupts it. Treating wisdom literature like technical writing impoverishes it.
Now, I love technical writing, and not just because I’ve studied technical communication. I love it because at its best, it’s a facilitation tool. It’s designed to ease users’ experience with a given technology, process, or interface. It’s a helpful way to become more smoothly accommodated to the world we’re in. Perhaps this fundamental purpose is why it’s not the sum of things.
With wisdom literature from several sources, from dualists and non-dualists, within and well beyond Christianity, I have a different type of reader experience than I do with technical writing. A story, poem, or reflection doesn’t derive its value to me from its usability, accessibility, or fact-to-fluff ratio. Its value is in its capacity to inspire, to illuminate an aspect of human life, to make an insight more vivid, to create a space for meditation, to highlight possibilities my linear mind has missed, to spark my creative and constructive imagination, to challenge me to flourish and to keep becoming.
No matter how precise or persuasive a piece of technical writing is, these simply aren’t outcomes it’s fitted for. And wisdom literature isn’t about how to choose your profession or customize your new phone.
Treat a thing as the thing it is, and it will never disappoint you.