Two people can watch the same event unfold and share significantly different stories about what happened. This is a commonly understood phenomena regarding eyewitness accounts, investigators have to deal with it all the time. It makes finding out who is right infuriating.
Does it seem strange that two people (or millions of people) can read the same Bible and come away with different conclusions and emphases? It shouldn’t. To be human is to be situated, and to be situated is to see from a very specific perspective.“It shouldn’t surprise us that we read the same Bible but come to different conclusions. To be human is to be situated, and to be situated is to see from a specific perspective.”
The missionary/missiologist Andrew Walls wrote a lot about these dynamics, because missionaries have to learn to avoid jackassery. Think about it for a minute. You leave your church and culture where your beliefs are clearly formulated and everything is done exactly as you prefer. Then you fly over an ocean and start talking theology and pastoring in a totally different cultural setting. These people love God every bit as much as you do, but they emphasize different facets of God and the way he relates to people. They might not even think to affirm some of the things you consider most important. They’ve never heard of John Piper, Rachel Held Evans, or Francis Chan, so they’re not purposely trying to contradict their teaching, but they definitely do from time to time.
How are you going to respond to this? With grace and understanding? Or like a jackass? In this setting, a jackass insists that the way he understands Scripture is the way Scripture is to be understood. A jackass equates her specific perspective with capital T Truth. A jackass insists that disagreeing on these things means false teaching, possibly damnation.
But Walls says this misses it entirely. He offers a helpful illustration.
Let’s say a thousand people go to the theatre to watch Hamilton. Everyone is sitting in a different seat. Some are seated low, barely able to see over the lip of the stage. Others are seated high with a better view of the stage but without being able to see the actors’ facial expressions. Some are seated on the left and can see a bit more behind the right curtain. When an actor emerges from that curtain, the left-sitters can see what’s happening before anyone else. When something happens on the far left of the stage, however, the low-left-sitters hear the audience’s laughter before they identify the action.
The point is, there’s no such thing as “watching Hamilton.” There’s no view from nowhere. If you’re going to watch the play, you have to choose a seat. And the seat we choose shapes the way we see, experience, and interpret the play to a significant extent. This is important: it’s the same play, but we are connecting to different aspects of it. If someone’s favorite part of Hamilton is the moment when Darth Vader walks onstage, of course, you know they weren’t watching the same play. But if her favorite part of the play is different than yours, then you’re a jackass for calling her out on it.
I’m sure you’ve been able to see where this is heading. I think a lot of our theological battles come down to viewing the Bible from our own specific seats. My theological training happened in a place where John Piper was condemned for sitting where miraculous gifts looked prominent in the Jesus story. Our own seats were so low we couldn’t even see those miracles taking place, apparently. We also denounced R.C. Sproul for seeing a thread in how the story ends (eschatology) that we hadn’t noticed. I brayed along with my camp as we called out these “false teachings,” but man, we were being a bunch of jackasses.“If we fixate on our specific interpretation of the Bible yet somehow miss the reality that THE BIBLE IS ABOUT LOVE, then we may as well have skipped it. We’re worse off for having read it.”
In this illustration, we don’t need to all agree on every detail or emphasis in the play. But we’re all watching the same play. Some interpretations are wrong, to be sure, but if there’s no room for a different emphasis, a different approach, and a different interpretation here and there, then we are perpetuating jackass theology. And if we fixate on nailing down the authoritative interpretation but neglect the reality that THE PLAY IS ABOUT LOVING PEOPLE, then we may as well have skipped the play. Actually, we’re worse off for having watched the play.
Missionaries have to consider these realities. They have no choice. In the U.S. we seem to have come to a place where we feel free to disregard or attack anyone who sees something different than us. We have to cut this out. The body is meant to be diverse. The whole thing is supposed to be held together by love. We appreciate the play all the more when we discuss it with other people who were sitting on the other side of the theatre.