Though biblical illiteracy tends to be rather widespread—even among believers—many unbelievers know enough about the Bible to raise questions about how believers understand and interpret the Scriptures. These questions deserve a thoughtful answer, which means it would be wise for Christians to reflect together on how to explain their hermeneutic (how they go about interpreting the Scriptures) to non-Christians in a pluralistic culture.
A recent example of such questions concerns the controversy surrounding some of Laura Schlessinger’s comments about homosexuality on her daily radio talk program. Apparently, Dr. Laura used Old Testament texts while speaking against homosexual behavior. In response, a listener wrote the following letter, in essence challenging what they consider to be her selective, and thus inconsistent, use of biblical law:
Dear Dr. Laura,
Thank you for doing so much to educate people regarding God’s law. I have learned a great deal from you and try to share that knowledge with as many people as I can.
When someone tries to defend the homosexual lifestyle, for example, I simply remind him that Leviticus 18:22 clearly states it to be an abomination.
I do need some advise from you, however, regarding some of the specific laws and how best to follow them.
1. When I burn a bull on the altar as sacrifice, I know it creates a pleasing odor for the Lord (Leviticus 1:9). The problem is my neighbors. They claim the odor is not pleasing to them. How should I deal with this?
2. I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in Exodus (21:7). In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?
3. Leviticus 25:44 states that I may buy slaves from the nations that are around us. A friend of mine claims this applies to Mexicans but not Canadians. Can you clarify?
4. I have a neighbor who insists on working the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly states he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself?
5. A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Leviticus 10:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?
6. Leviticus 20:20 states that I may not approach the altar of God if I have a defect in my sight. I have to admit that I wear reading glasses. Does my vision have to be 20/20, or is there some wiggle-room here?
7. I know that I am allowed no contact with a woman while she is in her period of uncleanliness (Leviticus 15:19-24). The problem is, how do I know? I have tried asking, but most women take offense.
I know you have studied these things extensively, so I am confident you can help. Thank you again for reminding us that God’s word is eternal and unchanging.
A Concerned Individual
There are at least two issues here that are worthy of reflection by discerning Christians. The first is the actual controversy surrounding Dr. Laura. (Were her comments wise? Was her tone appropriate? Is talk radio a good forum for such topics? Should Christians support her? Why or why not?) And though this is not without interest, since it is impossible to reproduce all the necessary facts here for such a discussion, this column will deal with the second issue, namely, what response we would give if similar questions were raised by a non-Christian friend who learned we took the Bible’s teaching seriously.
Please read the above article and respond to the discernment exercise questions listed at the bottom of this page first. Below is a response to these questions about Dr. Laura.
The issue needing discernment
In a previous article we raised an exercise in discernment involving questions about Old Testament law. It revolved around a letter posted on the Internet addressed to radio personality Dr. Laura Schlessinger in response to statements she (apparently) made on her program to the effect that homosexuality was contrary to the law of God. The Internet respondent thanks her for reminding everyone that “Leviticus 18:22 clearly states [homosexuality] to be an abomination,” but says he needs advice on understanding other texts. “I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as it suggests in Exodus (21:7),” he writes. “In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?” And “A friend of mine feels that even though eating shellfish is an abomination (Leviticus 10:10), it is a lesser abomination than homosexuality. I don’t agree. Can you settle this?” And he lists five more questions in a similar vein.
We said there were at least two issues worth considering here. First is the controversy surrounding Dr. Laura. Were her comments wise? Was her tone appropriate? Is talk radio a good forum for such topics? Should Christians support her? Why or why not? And second, what response we would give if similar questions were raised by a non-Christian friend who learned we took the Old Testament’s teaching seriously. In this column I will sketch out some reflections on the first of the two issues; in a future issue of Critique, I’ll tackle the second. It’s possible readers might disagree with what I write here, or have ideas they wish to add to the discussion—and if so, I hope you will take advantage of the conversation available in Critique’s Dialogue column.
Christian apologetics—especially in the sense of providing answers to the questions and challenges raised by non-Christian friends—is not a matter of having snappy responses to win an argument. It is instead an honest effort within a conversation to provide creative and meaningful reasons for our faith. The goal is not to win a debate, but to persuade, to listen, to raise questions and suggest answers, while inviting challenges and taking them seriously. That being the case, please don’t read what I write here as a stock response to whip out when the topic of Dr. Laura arises. Rather, read it as my attempt to help us all think and live and speak more Christianly in a society in which talk radio plays such a prominent role in the public square.
What I’d probably say…
I didn’t hear the program, and in fact have only listened to brief excerpts of Dr. Laura’s show on a couple of occasions. As a follower of Jesus though, I find her comments, as you’ve reported them, to be deeply offensive. Talk radio may be popular, but I doubt that strident voices are all that helpful. In a pluralistic culture when the very fabric of civility seem to be unraveling, we need to listen and care for one another, even when we disagree, and I don’t think that happens on talk radio. Relationships seem to be fragmenting, people seem to be increasingly polarized, and that means we need to tone down the rhetoric, not inflame it. It’s fashionable to say we need to tolerate one another, but actually I don’t think that’s sufficient. Toleration doesn’t go far enough. As a follower of Christ I believe I am called to something more radical, more healing, than simply being tolerant. I am called to work for reconciliation, just as Jesus did. To break down barriers, instead of raising them. So, I don’t listen to talk radio on principle. I’d rather have a conversation over dinner with friends.
How I’ve tried to be discerning…
In trying to think this through and arrive at this response, I’ve used several basic questions to guide my thinking. My desire is not simply to react—to either the non-Christians raising the challenge nor to Dr. Laura and talk radio—but to be discerning. The questions I’m using are simple yet probing, and together they allow me the opportunity to set the issue within a distinctly Christian perspective. The four questions are a guide for discernment, whether we are responding to a film, an idea, an issue in the news, or to a challenge to our faith.
Discernment question #1: What’s being said—or, what are the facts? Many Christians are supportive of Dr. Laura, and usually give similar reasons when I ask them why they appreciate her program. “She speaks the truth,” they say. “She uses common sense, tells it like it is, lets callers really have it when they need it, and when asked about moral issues, she bases her answers on God’s law in the Old Testament.” I haven’t listened to her enough to know, but let’s assume for the sake of discussion that this is an accurate portrayal of what is broadcast when Dr. Laura is on the air.
Discernment question #2(a): What’s a Christian response—where do we agree? In this post-Christian age, a desire to stand for or proclaim the truth is both noble and necessary. We can hardly expect anyone to take us and our message seriously if our approach to truth is any less rigorous than our Master’s. After all, Christ didn’t merely claim to teach or demonstrate the truth; he claimed something far more radical: he claimed to be the Truth. To this extent, then, we must see Dr. Laura as a co-belligerent, attempting to argue for the truth in a culture which doubts truth is even possible.
Discernment question #2(b): What’s a Christian response—where do we disagree? The Scriptures, however, don’t merely teach us to proclaim the truth. They also teach us that there are times when the truth should not be proclaimed; that just because something is true doesn’t mean it should be said. Jesus taught that there are situations in which it would be wrong to share aspects of the truth—that doing so would be inappropriate for our listeners, and dishonoring to him. This is seldom taken seriously by believers today, but not because Jesus’ teaching is obscure. Rather, it seems that our passion to proclaim the truth to a lost world overwhelms our willingness to obey that truth ourselves.
“Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs,” Jesus taught in Matthew 7:6. “If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” Notice that Christ is not criticizing those he refers to as “dogs” or “swine”—they are simply acting in a way that fits their nature. Dump jewels into a hungry boar’s trough, and he won’t be pleased; if he’s hungry enough he might attack, and if he’s big enough he could very well “tear you to pieces.” The metaphor is apt, as any farmer knows. Jesus is not criticizing the unbeliever for refusing what is sacred, he is warning those to whom he has entrusted his truth not to treat it as less than sacred.
Discernment question #3: Why do we believe this? What Jesus is calling for is a form of discernment, the ability to distinguish carefully those who are prepared to appreciate what we have to offer in the gospel, and those who are not yet ready. Or more accurately, how much of the good news our non-Christian friend is prepared to receive. “A Jew,” Dr. Tasker writes in his commentary on this text, “would not invite a pagan to share his religious feasts, for that would be like throwing meat consecrated for sacrifice to an unclean pariah-dog. Nor would he risk the jibes of his Gentile neighbors by placing before them spiritual ‘food’ which they could not assimilate; for that would be like trying to feed unclean pigs with pearls, the only result being that the pigs, finding the pearls inedible, trample them under foot and turn savagely upon the donor. Similarly, the truths that Christ taught, his pearls of great price, must not be broadcast indiscriminately to those who would ridicule and despise them, and become increasingly antagonistic.” We are required, then, to treat the gospel as not only true, but precious. Could it be that one reason so few take our message seriously is that we don’t seem to take it seriously enough ourselves?
Discernment question #4: How do we speak about and live out the truth creatively in a pluralistic and fallen world? If they turn on us when we throw pearls to swine, we must not imagine the result to be persecution, for it is not. It is, rather, nothing more than the natural result of treating the truth as less than precious. The opening phrase in the Greek (“Do not give”) is a strong prohibition which means, “Never think of giving.” So, if the question about how we understand God’s law in the Old Testament arises as an honest question raised by an interested friend, they deserve an honest answer. But if the question arises because we have treated the truth as less than sacred, proclaiming it indiscriminately in terms inappropriate to our listeners, they still deserve an honest answer, but when the conversation is finished we must repent for treating the truth more lightly than it deserves.
Just because something is true is not sufficient reason for it to be said. The truth is sacred, precious beyond our imagining, and Christ expects his followers to act accordingly. And though I have heard so little of Dr. Laura that I wish to speak with great care about her program, as a Christian I find it impossible to support what she and others are doing on talk radio. Talk radio may be a forum where the truth can be proclaimed, but it is not a forum where the preciousness of truth can be safeguarded. As a Christian, therefore, I cannot be supportive of such programs. And I will gladly distance myself from them—even when talking to a person with whom I happen to disagree far more than I do with Dr. Laura on any particular point.
Many of our postmodern friends feel they have considered the claims of Christianity and found them wanting, when all that has happened is that they have heard some tirade by someone claiming to stand for the truth, or been on the receiving end of a regurgitated spiel told without regard for their questions or concerns. They need to hear the truth, certainly, but from someone who loves them enough to invite them home for dinner. Someone who will listen, ask questions, and then listen some more before talking. Someone who loves the truth so deeply that they refuse to reduce it to sound bites. Someone who is eager to share the truth because it has so captured their heart and mind and imagination that they share it for what it is—as something more precious than life itself.
Questions I might ask my friend…
This is, as I have already stressed, a conversation with a non-Christian, not a debate in which we launch withering arguments against an opponent. That being the case, I would want to ask questions of my challenger. I would want to get to know them better, and try to understand what is behind their challenge. Although I am eager to answer questions—including saying, “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” when it’s appropriate—I am also eager to listen. My desire must be to treat my challenger as a person of significance, made in God’s image. I ask my questions willing to learn from my non-Christian friend, and willing to admit it when my position, in part or as a whole, is revealed to be contrary to the truth. And I ask them realizing that to the extent their ideas and values are contrary to the truth, that weakness in their world view might, by God’s grace, become increasingly clear as I ask them what they believe, and why. And if such weakness becomes evident, I will not gloat because I know the shame of being wrong, and because regardless of how my challenger conceives of our interaction, it is a conversation between friends, not a debate between enemies. So, here are a few of the questions I would consider raising.
What did you think of Dr. Laura’s statement? How did it make you feel? Why? Did you actually hear her statements about homosexuality?
Have you found Christians to be intolerant? How was their intolerance expressed? Do you find me intolerant?
If you converted to Christianity today, do you think your life would become larger, fuller, richer, more attractive and creative, more involved with people and culture? Or do you think your life would be smaller, narrower, more withdrawn, more reactionary, less winsome, less involved with people and culture? What has convinced you of this? Do you think Jesus was uncreative or reactionary or negative? How do you know?
How do you define tolerance? Intolerance? Since we live in a pluralistic society, who sets the boundaries for intolerance? If we disagree with someone’s beliefs or values, how do we live together in a civil society? How can we express our disagreement without appearing intolerant?
What ideas or beliefs or values or lifestyles do you find so distasteful, or wrong, or dangerous that they are hard to tolerate? Why?
Questions1. Have such questions about how you interpreted the Bible (especially God’s law) ever been raised to you by non-Christians? What specifically did they raise? Were you satisfied by your response? Why or why not?
2. Some would read the letter written to Dr. Laura as being sarcastic or cynical in contrast to being simply an honest question from a friend. Should this matter to the Christian? Should it effect our response? Why or why not?
3. What principles of interpretation do you use to understand and apply Old Testament law? If you can not clearly verbalize such a set of principles, what specific plans should you make to rectify this lack? If you can verbalize a set of principles, where did you get them? How do you know they are a proper approach to Scripture as God’s word? What New Testament texts would you point to as teaching and illustrating these principles?
4. How would you explain your principles of interpretation to an unbeliever using terms they might be able to understand?
5. To what extent does your life demonstrate a thoughtful, joyful, and life-affirming approach to understanding and being faithful to God’s moral law?
6. How would you respond to an non-Christian who argues that since few Christians seem at all concerned to take their God’s law concerning Sabbath rest seriously, they are hypocritical to be incensed when unbelievers make films depicting sexuality or blasphemy? Or when they protest legalizing homosexual marriages?
SourceThe letter to Dr. Laura, originally posted on the Internet, was reproduced in “A Bible Quiz for Dr. Laura (no you can’t turn the other ear)” by Brian Lambert in Pioneer Press (Tuesday June 13, 2000) page F1.
The Gospel According to St. Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary by R. V. G. Tasker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; 1961) p.80.