Does the Timeless Word have a half-life?

In the 2006 film V for Vendetta, the vigilante V takes over a television studio and broadcasts his anti-imperial message across all of England. In the broadcast, V has a quote (watch the scene here) which lifts up one of his truths:

Allow me first to apologise for this interruption. I do, like many of you, appreciate the comforts of everyday routine—the security of the familiar, the tranquility of repetition. I enjoy them as much as any bloke. But…[let’s take] some time out of our daily lives to sit down and have a little chat. There are, of course, those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way.

Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.

Indeed, words will always retain their poweror do they?

The half-life of Encyclopædia Britannica

Consider the formerly ubiquitous Encyclopædia Britannica: a wealth of knowledge in a series of hardbound encyclopedias, written by experts in the field.

They stopped publishing the printed edition in 2010. If the knowledge of 2010 was the final say on its subjects, it would slowly become obsolete. Like an old edition of the DSM that claimed homosexuality is a mental illness, or old religion books that claimed Moses wrote the first five books of the Hebrew Bible (including his own death), knowledge is fluid as societies change and reason marches on.

Indeed, there’s a half-life to knowledge. Like plutonium or radioactive elements that slowly lose their power and break down into nothing, knowledge also breaks down over time.

In 1997’s comedy about aliens Men in Black, Tommy Lee Jones’s senior agent character says to the junior agent Will Smith:

Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat. And fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

New knowledge must replace old knowledge that cannot stand the test of time. Not all knowledge has a half-life, but a good chunk of it does. Today, the crowdsourced website Wikipedia far outdoes Encyclopædia Britannica because it can remove the knowledge that has become obsolete much faster than a hardbound edition.

Wikipedia is not something you can download and get its full effect. Yes, there is knowledge in a hardbound copy, but it is in the growing, experimenting, categorizing, re-categorizing, and offering up every word and syllable to constant scrutiny that make Wikipedia what it is.

By reasonably considering nothing to be sacrosanct, Wikipedia’s words retain their power and authority.

The half-life of the Bible?

We wonder, then, if the Bible has similar qualities.

The Bible has had a nuclear effect on the world: it has brought down kingdoms and built them up again. It has sparked crusades of death and conquest across Spain to Jerusalem , and offered solace to slaves in the deep South. It offers seemingly bulletproof backing to the Moral Majority candidates and constant critique to American politics that forget the poor. From the most progressive blogger to the most literal fundamentalist, the Bible’s power is evident in its means to meaning and its enunciation of truth.

And yet, in the midst of all this power, are there parts of the Bible that are radioactive? Are there parts of the Bible that were powerful and relevant once, but lost their power over time?

  • In Acts 10, it is revealed to Peter that the timeless radioactive power of Old Testament (well, not to them but to us) prohibitions against eating certain animals no longer had power–by God’s command. In Acts 11, it is revealed to the Apostles that the Timeless understanding of the favor of God being on the Jews (and not the Gentiles) was shown to have a half-life–by God’s command.
  • Despite a few radioactive passages against women speaking in church, more women preach today than in any point in history.
  • Despite several radioactive passages against homosexuality, LGBT persons are incrementally being granted full inclusion in denominations and traditions around the world.
  • Despite a long tradition of using Scripture to justify slavery based on a few radioactive passages (or more specifically, radioactive silence), those understandings no longer have any power or credibility in our contemporary world.

Indeed, so many of our contentions in the church revolve around which bucket we put passages in. What progressives might call exponentially decayed and impotent, the traditionalist (buoyed by…tradition) might call out as still applicable.

The debate rages because not everyone has the same radiometers that indicate power is dissipating as cultural contexts change.

Discerning the half-life

So how do we discern which passages have clean energy, and which radioactive passages have decayed over time?

Here’s our claim:

By treating the Bible more as a tome of knowledge like Wikipedia and less as a tomb of knowledge like Encyclopædia Britannica, we can live out communally-accountable interpretations of biblical truth and see if they hold power.

Many traditions have seen the evidence of the Spirit in women and say “The Spirit of truth is upon them.” We can hear the truth of their stories resonating in our hearts and conclude nothing less than that God is with them. The Gospel is Good News–something new–that tells us something that we didn’t know before and transforms us.

We don’t see that evidence in those passages that have lost their power. A passage that no longer has power will not offer a lasting change to a broad swath of people. Quote:

A dead body, you see, will take on the temperature of its environment. Such was the case with the church at Laodicea. (source)

A dead passage, radioactively inert, will no longer lift up its environment in a sustaining way and perhaps it needs to be left behind. As church denominations see the lack of power in certain passages against women’s ordination, they can say in their polity and practice “while Truth exists in the passage, power does not.”

And perhaps it is time for us to make that same decision as a community about the full inclusion of LGBT persons: let’s live it out and see what happens. While the most resolute Literalist rejects leaving Truth up for popular discernment (forgetting our canonization process would not actually pass that test), the Progressive accepts that the Bible maintains its Truth eternally but its power over particular matters may be bound or loosened over time.

Let’s live it out, discern the fruits, and see what transformation might happen when the Spirit’s clean energy breaks forth from the dying embers of biblical literalism and the inert world-makings of modernism.

Thoughts?

Note: portions of this blog post originally appeared in this 2008 blog post.
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Comments

  1. Nathans says

    Great post! What a wonderful perspective for an old problem.

    I believe our God is consistent, and watching the recent version of “Cosmos” only solidified that for me (I loved Neil’s descriptions of dark matter and dark energy from the last episode). So many of the patterns that exist in nature are reflections of God and how he works. The most obvious example of this is John 15 (the Vine and branches), but the possible parallels are endless.

    Before reading your post, I’ve always thought about this problem (seemingly “out-of-date” Bible passages) by looking at Matthew 5:17-20:

    “Don’t suppose for a minute that I have come to demolish the Scriptures—either God’s Law or the Prophets. I’m not here to demolish but to complete. I am going to put it all together, pull it all together in a vast panorama. God’s Law is more real and lasting than the stars in the sky and the ground at your feet. Long after stars burn out and earth wears out, God’s Law will be alive and working.”

    As Jesus brings everything together towards completion, perhaps certain parts of the Bible are no longer necessary? Like a caterpillar’s cocoon: it’s not that it wasn’t useful for a time–in fact, it was the most important thing for a large part of the caterpillar’s life. But what use does a caterpillar have for a cocoon once it’s transformed into a butterfly?

    As parts of the Bible “decay” and lose their power, perhaps it’s because humankind has grown and matured enough that we no longer need them like we once did?

    Regarding your last section, “discerning the half life:”

    I think the most important thing to remember when discerning whether a passage still has power or not is to look at the fruit, as we are told in Luke 6:43:

    “You don’t get wormy apples off a healthy tree, nor good apples off a diseased tree. The health of the apple tells the health of the tree.”

    Does my interpretation of this passage create good fruit or bad fruit?

    This is a much better question to ask than “What does the Bible say about it?” because the answer will still be tainted by your biases. Judging the health of the fruit forces one to look outside themselves and their experiences.

    The UMC struggle with LGBT inclusion is a perfect example of this. While some passages in the Bible seem to plainly say that “homosexuality is a sin and is incompatible with Christian teaching,” the fruit of that interpretation is consistently wormy and rotten.

  2. says

    Jeremy, I would caution you against characterizing those who view issues of human sexuality through the lens of the Christian church’s historic teaching as “resolute Literalist[s]” in their approach to Scripture. It makes a handy straw man in a post such as this one, but it is difficult to take seriously by anyone other than convinced devotees of your position. Surely you know that Christian biblical interpretation going back to the second century has encompassed a great many hermeneutical approaches. Yet in every age (including our own) the “broad swath” of Christians have understood creation, marriage, sexuality, family, etc., in ways that you personally reject. To characterize such people as biblical literalists as if they all can or should be lumped in with 20th century fundamentalism is tendentious in ways that do not do justice to the complexity of the arguments that surround us.

    You ought to read the chapter of Bill Arnold’s recent book “Seeing Black & White in a Gray World,” which engages Adam Hamilton’s particular hermeneutical approach on human sexuality and explains the traditional Wesleyan approach to Scripture. (The chapter I believe is titled, “The fork in the road” or something similar.) Arnold attempts to be charitable in his treatment of differing points of view in the course of presenting what he believes a faithfully Wesleyan reading of Scripture looks like. If you have the patience, you also ought to check out Richard Hays’ “Moral Vision of the New Testament.” I think then you might see the need to refrain from the kind of language you use in this post (specifically regarding your opponents) in that it is both inaccurate and unhelpful. Hamilton’s ‘three buckets’ image is attractive for all the reasons that it is wrong. Biblical interpretation is not that simple.

    • says

      Andrew, thanks for your comment. A closer read at my post may yield that the mischaracterization you are accusing me of was not present.

      In the second section, the description of the Bible’s power in history and society was obviously an exercise in extremes. From THIS to THAT side of the fence. In the third section, you rightly pull out my phrase “resolute literalist” but leave out the key descriptor “most resolute literalist.” Such a descriptor is clearly to an extreme position. Finally, in the last section, I point to both biblical literalism and modernism as falling short of seeing what I see as the power changes in Scripture over time.

      You also ignore the places where I’m obviously charitable to the conflict. The only time I use a broad swath approach and not a polemic approach is here, and I note that you had nothing to complain about it:

      What progressives might call exponentially decayed and impotent, the traditionalist (buoyed by…tradition) might call out as still applicable.

      It’s fine for you to read the post with your own lenses or to reject categories I’ve used. But if you are going to accuse me of lumping middle positions in with the extreme and calling foul, be sure to compare if what you see and what is actually there are closer to each other than in your comment above.

      • says

        Jeremy:

        I appreciate the engagement. I did read the post carefully, and what I was referring to was your tendency to juxtapose opposites and characterize the position with which you disagree in exaggerated (or even hyperbolic) terms. Take these four pairs that appear in your post:

        Wikipedia / Encyclopaedia Britannica
        most progressive blogger / most literal fundamentalist
        progressives / traditionalist
        Progressive / most resolute Literalist

        I understand the use of the first and third pairs. (I don’t think the encyclopaedia analogy works as well as you think it does b/c the issue is one of data compilation and production methods rather than knowledge qua knowledge, and neither of these necessarily applies to the understanding of biblical truth and cultural relevancy in the ‘half-life’ framework that you suggest. But that’s another issue altogether.)

        The second and fourth pairs are where the rhetorical strategy you use veers into what I meant as inaccurate and unhelpful. Your strategy is to argue for a particular kind of biblical hermeneutic by setting up the approach you think is correct (i.e., “progressive” in each instance) over against the one you think is not (the label of which shifts each time). I understand that a blog post is a particular kind of medium, and you have to lump similar positions under single labels in order to make it work. But when you take a relatively benign label (progressive) and use as its counterpoint a label that is at times odious to the reading public (e.g., “most resolute Literalist” and “literal fundamentalist”), the rhetorical effect is to discredit those with whom you disagree by the very labels you are using. Perhaps you don’t even realize you are doing this, but trust me, it is there.

        Again, thanks for the engagement. Your writing never leaves anyone in doubt where you stand, and your clear articulation of your position is helpful in clarifying the constituency which you represent within the UM connection.

        • says

          Andrew, thanks to you for your continued engagement. It’s always helpful to learn how my writing (content and style) is received by people. Since I am a person who grew up with Christianity being moored to a particular literal interpretation and political party that was not my own, my efforts are often to break the links between Christianity and those hermeneutics/philosophies. Since the blog is read by a good number of nominal or post-Christians, using the prevalent “image” of Christianity as a polemic partner speaks to them as well.

          Andrew, since your upbringing and current philosophy seems to be more of the majority traditional Christianity worldview, I can understand why you don’t like being lumped with the far regions of your “side” of your perspective, just as I don’t like being lumped with far-left folks. We are sensitive to characterizations of our side though we don’t often see the ways how we lump the other side together. Perhaps this is a helpful conversation to see, too, that who I “represent” as my “constituency” is perhaps not as broadly defined as you think it might be.

  3. Steven Sprecher says

    I think – and hope – I perceive in your post a recognition that discerning half life is not only communally based but is not a linear progression. For example, the passages in Acts 10 and 11 which you cite had immense power at some points in our history around issues of inclusion and exclusion surrounding faith groups and denominations. They seemed to become less relevant and forgotten for a time (half-life exposed?) but now have gained new power as issues of inclusion and exclusion have come to the fore around issues of sexual identity. By the way, a great read on this is Exclusion and Embrace by Miroslav Volf.

    • says

      I like that, Steve. I think you’re right that the analogy isn’t perfect as some passages become more powerful over time or at different arcs of our history. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Wesley White says

    At a recent Connectional Table dialogue on human sexuality, “Bishop Arichea talked about his gay son and how that relationship has influenced his understanding of Scripture. He categorized the two perspectives on Scripture as 1) timeless truths that can influence our devotion to God, and 2) time-bound passages that must be seen in the light of contextual study and the insights of science.” (Reporting from Methoblog)

    This idea of a half-life goes back to scripture commenting on scripture. An experience of the Holy doesn’t stand still and needs to be revisited and re understood as next realities are faced. Thanks for the post.

  5. says

    The problem with the analogy is authorship. No one claims that Britannica (and certainly not Wikipedia) is authored with the intervention and/or inspiration of God.

    That said, I’m not totally opposed to what you’re talking about here, but I think it is dangerous to view this kind of discernment in an individualistic sense. If certain texts are to have a half-life – like the wrestling over circumcision, for instance – this is to be discerned in prayerful community, not individual enlightenment.

    I think the idea of Scripture interpreting Scripture is quite helpful, though not to the progressive UMC case regarding the elephant in the room. Unlike, say, eating shellfish or circumcision, or women’s leadership or slavery, there is not a liberative biblical trajectory to which one can point on that particular matter to justify jettisoning the texts that do speak clearly.

    To circle back, I do think Enlightenment is the key word, though. All of this smacks of modernity’s confidence that we get wiser in every way as we go on (and thus able to discern with inerrant certainly where our ancestors went wrong), which aside from being an asinine and prideful worldview, is utterly disproved by the facts of the 20th century.

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