Last week The Anxious Bench had a discussion about the importance of “truth.” One of us made a comment on how elders and deacons in church can often be heard saying “We have to preach the TRUTH” or “we have to teach TRUTH in our Sunday School.” (the capitals emphasizing the tone of such statements) It’s usually followed up with some comment about how we have to stick to “The Bible.” You’d be hard pressed to find any Christian pastor that would disagree with such a statement. So it begs the question…why do people feel the need to make such a statement?
It’s usually because people feel that their understanding of “the truth” is threatened. People of faith put their trust in sacred texts. For Christians that text is the Bible. The Bible then becomes the shaping force in the Christian life. But the text is not static. The text is supposed to lead us to a living relationship with God, not a static picture of God that we can cling to. If the truth we’re talking about is only a picture of God vs a relationship with God then we fail to recognize the truth.
A good example might be found in a trip to the restaurant. You sit down and the waiter hands you a menu. The menu is filled with pictures of the various options for order. You see something that you really like and when the waiter comes you point to the picture and say “I’d like to have this.” But you really don’t want “this” which is the picture in the menu, you want what the picture represents. People in search of Biblical truth can often go in the wrong direction when the truth they’re talking about is nothing but a series of cut out pictures that fall short of what they represent. We must read the Bible, our sacred text, with a sense of humility and even a willingness to make room for interpretative differences while trusting God’s spirit with integrity in order to live into the truth.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a profound essay called “What Does It Mean to Tell the Truth?” while in Tegel prison in his final year of life. He was dealing with telling the truth with respect to ethical standards which is a different but related topic. But something he says rings true for the conversation about Biblical TRUTH. He writes:
“It is only the cynic who claims “to speak the truth” at all times and in all places to all men in the same way, but who, in fact, displays nothing but a lifeless image of the truth. … He dons the halo of the fanatical devotee of truth who can make no allowance for human weaknesses; but, in fact, he is destroying the living truth between men. He wounds shame, desecrates mystery, breaks confidence, betrays the community in which he lives, and laughs arrogantly at the devastation he has wrought and at the human weakness which “cannot bear the truth.”
The type of person Bonhoeffer is typically talking about is someone who is critical of sacred texts. But unfortunately most of these words could also be used for many people (Christians included) who guard the TRUTH of their sacred texts in a hard, cold and static fashion with no room for the mystery of God himself.
There’s a lot to consider in Jesus words to his disciples in John 14 after telling them not to be afraid. He says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In doing so he defines himself as the truth. The challenge of Christian truth is to live with a reality of Jesus who is not contained to the pages of the Bible, but is alive and at work. To hold on to the TRUTH means that we need to be ready to expect the unexpected. As the misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s novel “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” says so well,
“Jesus was the only one that ever raised the dead and he shouldn’t have done it. He has shown everything off balance.”
Or maybe we need to come to grip with the fact that Jack Nicholson’s character Colonel Jessep’s in the movie “A Few Good Men” might be right in declaring,
Because far too often…we can’t.