Thursday, September 09, 2010

Prescription v. Description

In America, we hear a lot about things being "Bible-based," "Biblical," or "God's way," whether it's child-rearing, gender roles, diets, education, preaching style, church government, taboos, or guy-girl interaction.  It can be overwhelming!  Many use this as sort of a trump card, and it's hard to argue with it.  "If it's in the Bible, well, I guess I HAVE to do it?"  I mean, how can you argue with the Bible?  This post is an attempt to help us remember what is fair use of the term "Biblical" and what isn't.  Some of you might wonder "why in tarnation is she going into this?"  I guess because this is something I've been chewing on in my mind for the past year or so, as I discuss various topics with friends... I'd think "I know that's not quite right...but why?" and think about it some more, talk to Ryan & others... The results of those questions and self-examinations have turned into this little post.

First, what I call "fair trade usage." =D  Ok... how about just fair.  We can call something Biblical when it's an issue clearly addressed in Scripture.  Many (most even) aspects of morality, church government, familial structure, and gender roles aren't vaguely mentioned in Scripture.  They are clearly explained, with examples given of those who followed wisely, and those who followed foolishly.  There are clear commands, clear expressions of God's opinions on the topic, rewards promised and punishment or discipline warned about.  We call passages like that "prescriptive."  Like a prescription a doctor writes, which says "Take this much of this drug for this problem for this long," there isn't too much interpretation needed.  Saying that the Biblical position on stealing is that it's wrong is obvious.  So is saying that God's way for children to be raised is in loving families, not state-run daycares.  The Biblical position on human life is that it's sacred because humans are made in God's Image.  It's also clear in Scripture that life begins at conception.  Therefore, murder is wrong... even if that murder occurs in the womb (abortion).  Now, there are differences among Christians about how to interpret Biblical teaching or even what the words mean, but the face-value is pretty clear.  For example, we might disagree on what baptism means, but we all agree that Christians are supposed to be baptized!

OK...  That was the easy part.  There's a very incorrect way to interpret Scripture, and that is to take all as prescription when some is description. According to Princeton's online dictionary, description is "a statement that represents something in words."  I describe something to you when I tell you what I ate today, or what sort of houses I saw on my drive.  The Bible is full of these sorts of things. When I tell you I saw a family outside their two-storey brick, am I implying that you should buy one?  Not unless I start talking about how it's better than any other home, or explicitly tell you to buy one-- then it's prescriptive, not descriptive.  (You might be thinking "duh," but hear me out.)  I've heard so many people go from saying "this is described in the Bible" to saying "thus, we should all do it."  Let me give three somewhat "duh" examples, just to make my point.  The Bible talks about houses with roofs, as well as living in tents.  We don't imply that the "godliest" forms of houses are roofed or are goat-hair Beduin tents.  In the Bible, most of the children have Hebraic names. Does that mean that you are more "in line with God's way" if you name your kids Hebrew-derived names?  Well, no.  Isaiah 25 refers to a shroud being used in funerals.  Does that mean we HAVE to be buried in a shroud in order to be "biblical?"  No. 

Why does this matter?  Because there are some really serious weights that can be laid on people, and I want us to be able to spot them and then steer clear of them. For one, there's the idea that the "betrothal" method of "dating" (where couples are formally betrothed before beginning a relationship at all) is "most Biblical" because it is the only method mentioned in Scripture.*   I'm not saying there couldn't be valid reasons to choose a betrothal model of relationship if you're in a situation where that'd work for you.  I am saying that doing it "because it's the only model in the Bible" is a bad reason.  As a last "case study," I'll give a concrete example, from this article.  I almost don't want to link to it, it's so awful, but... otherwise you might think I was making it up.

The article says that the only way to be a godly, Bible-keeping mother is by not only breastfeeding, but by nursing on-demand all night long. In short, I found the article to be one of the saddest excuses of exegesis I've ever seen.**  What's wrong with this article?  Every Biblical text is ripped from its context (most aren't even full verses), but most importantly, none of them are texts mandating any mother-child relationship at all! They aren't prescriptive texts!!  Every one of those statements assumes something about the mother already, so they could very well be cultural expectations.  I think there's something to be said for inferring from oblique references, but we have to be very careful to not turn these into hard and fast rules, which this article does.  We can't turn description automatically into prescription.  Doing that places a burden on people that Scripture doesn't place. 

* This post isn't meant to deal with dating in-depth.  I think the Word of God DOES clearly give principles for guy-girl (and all human) interactions, and personally espouse the "courtship" model (a la Joshua Harris). The betrothal model can work in some (rather unique) situations, I've seen it with my own eyes, but I don't think it's any better because it happened to be the cultural norm 2000 years ago (in a very different society).  Scripture doesn't ever condone or promote it.

**Superseded in horror only by one video on the text "them that pisseth against the wall" (totally not kidding, sadly), and closely followed by an article on why women should wear head coverings:  as a badge against Satan's angels who like to come and rape women who don't wear headcoverings... again, not kidding!

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