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Following My Star: A Meditation on Truth

By Kirk T. Wood, United Church of Christ of La Mesa

     On Epiphany Sunday (a while ago now, I know) our pastor handed out paper stars, each with its own special word printed on it.  Then he sent us out into the world with the injunction to “follow your star.”  The word on my star is “Truth.”  I was tempted to do as some of my fellow congregants (naming no names, Grandma) and ask for another star that felt more appropriate to me, but then I decided to hold on to “Truth” and see where it led me.

     I was leery about “Truth” because I have felt for some time that claims of knowing the whole truth, or the truest truth, have gotten Christianity into a lot of trouble the past 2,000 years.  There are many ways of being Christian, and have been since the beginning when Jesus’ ministry on Earth ended in catastrophic failure: he was crucified by the authorities, and his followers ran away and denied knowing him!  That should have been the end of this rabble rouser, as far as the Roman authorities and religious leaders were concerned.  But then the followers of Jesus did something unexpected by the authorities, though not without precedent in the Jewish Tradition, or the Roman world – they regrouped, found new interpretations of what had happened, and spread the message to others.

     Thus Christianity was born, given life by a dedicated few going out into the world and telling stories, stories which told a compelling Truth.  Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried contains the best idea of ‘true stories’ I’ve ever read, but he is incapable of expressing this idea without also telling ‘true stories’ – in this case, about his experiences in the Vietnam War.  The condensed version is: stories are not ‘true’ because the events they relate happened ‘in just this way,’ but because they tell a ‘truth’ about what it means to be human.  The ‘true stories’ of Christianity, many of which have the added burden of being Sacred, and/or Biblical stories, began as oral tradition.  They were eventually written down then collected and sorted into a sacred text – The New Testament – by religious authorities, and finally published in many languages throughout the world.  Publishing manuscripts was a long and labor intensive process for several hundred years.  Then came the printing press, which made publishing manuscripts a slightly less long and labor intensive process.  But real innovation was that now many copies could be made exactly the same, without errors or mistakes.  And because there were many copies, soon there were many people who could read (and interpret) these copies.

     The Printing Press changed the way humans view the world: if you wanted to know something, now you looked it up in a book rather than asking a trusted authority figure.  In roughly the same era (give or take a few decades), Martin Luther began telling Christians it was their right and duty to read the Bible for themselves, and not take as rote everything their priests told them.  Luther’s call of sola scriptura – the Bible is the only source of authority in determining Christian theology, community and way of life, combined with easy access to printed scripture in many peoples’ native tongues, led to a new burst of interpretation and truth seeking throughout Christendom.  (And in the fullness of time many thousands of Protestant denominations were born, and flourished in the world.)

     This combination – the idea of sola scriptura and easy access to printed scripture led, eventually, to the two most enduring methods of Biblical Interpretation known to us in the 21st century: 1) Literal Truth Interpretation, and 2) Historical – Critical Interpretation.  Literal Truth Interpretation tells us that the Bible is the literal Word of God – written down by God-inspired scribes, and that the events portrayed in the scriptures have happened, are happening, and will happen, in just exactly the manner in which they are written.  Historical – Critical Interpretation teaches us that the Bible is a human document, written by humans, for humans, about the human experience of God, over the course of several centuries of human history, and the events portrayed therein did not happen in exactly the manner in which they were written, and may not have happened at all.  Both of these interpretive styles tend to get caught up in the same pitfall: explaining how these events did, or did not happen, in just this way.  Such explanations are, in the long run, futile. 

     True stories tell us truths about what it means to be human – not factual accounts of how historical events happened.  True sacred stories tell us truths about what it means to be people of faith – struggling to survive this process we call life, and give us ideas of how to (hopefully) make the world a better place for others.  Let’s hoist each other up, and climb out of the pit together – Christians of all kinds, in all places, and leave the futile arguments behind us.  We’ll focus on the Truth: God loves us, every woman, man, child, animal, plant, and particle of dust among us, and our job is to spread that Love as far and wide as we can, together – following our star.

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