rules of engagement

In my post on the brilliant Jewish author Chaim Potok, I referenced the novel I finished recently, In the Beginning. One of the issues with which the main character, a boy named David Lurie, struggles is how to engage ideas that are outside of, and even opposed to and by, those of one’s community. This theme is pertinent today to the Church, and particularly to my denomination as a United Methodist. We struggle not only with the outcomes of various debates, but also with the process by which they are debated. Indeed, the process is important to the outcome in the case of the Church in particular because our fellowship as the Body of Christ is an “outcome” that is bound up in the way we process our disagreements and how we practice corporate discernment in the interpretation and application of Scripture.

Perhaps David’s story can be of help to us. I don’t believe that it provides us with a destination that all of us can agree upon, but it can be beneficial to observe how another has wrestled with an issue. In the Beginning begins with David’s earliest years and follows him through college graduation; it begins in the roaring 20s and Hitler is defeated during his late college years. He has an exceptional mind and progresses quickly through his lessons. His teachers begin to give him extra reading in order to keep him from being bored and help him continue to grow. As he progresses through school, he cultivates his intellectual curiosity by studying bible with a friend’s father (with the blessing of his own parents). But the emphasis in his yeshiva (Jewish high school) is on the Talmud (medieval commentary on Torah, as best as I understand)—study of the bible is considered passé. Through a series of events, he discovers biblical criticism. The starting place for David is a book by a European Jew that counters Wellhausen’s and others’ claims, but this cracks the door open for David’s intellectual curiosity to wander in. His father, who has worked to save the lives of many Jews by bringing them to America, cannot bear to be in the same room with his son while he is reading the books written by German goyim (non-Jews), or even the Jew authors that debate them. It matters not that David’s motivation is to learn them in order to defend Torah, whatever that might mean—his community is opposed to his engaging these other viewpoints at all.

While David remains faithful to his community, he wrestles with the truth he has found in widening the scope of his view to include these other voices. He is interested in working for the continuance of his community’s distinct identity as grounded in and nurtured by its worship, authoritative texts, and communal life. But his vocation and task becomes engaging other versions of the basic story of his community with an eye to defending it against those who would destroy it, while at the same time integrating what he has learned and may yet learn that differs but does not destroy the essential fabric of the community’s story (which is another way of saying, its theology & worldview).

Questions begged by David’s journey include: Where are the lines between differing from and destroying the community’s story? What are the “rules of engagement” in giving other stories or versions of your own story a hearing? How does one judge what ought to be resisted and what ought to be integrated?

Hmm…more later as I think through implications for the context of the Church in 2005…

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