Tell them all this but do not expect them to listen

It seems to me that one of the cor­ner­stones of Judeo-Christian phi­los­o­phy is to remem­ber the sto­ries. I’m more than three-quarters of the way through the Bible (I’m stretch­ing my One Year Bible plan across two years) and that’s real­ly all it is: sto­ry after sto­ry of human’s rela­tions with God. Friends have picked up this method­ol­o­gy in a big way. Our pri­ma­ry reli­gious edu­ca­tion is the jour­nals elders have been asked to write to recount the tri­als and prophet­ic open­ings of a life lived in an attempt at spir­i­tu­al obedience.

There must be a pur­pose to this con­stant sto­ry review, some way it deep­ens our own spir­i­tu­al lives. One gift it gives to me is per­spec­tive. I was just tak­ing an evening bath and found myself get­ting upset about a par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion from my past and stopped to pick up my One Year Bible. The Old Tes­ta­ment read­ings for most of Tenth Month come from Jere­mi­ah. Here’s a bit of God’s instruc­tions to the prophet:

“Tell them all this, but do not expect them to lis­ten. Shout out your warn­ings but do not expect them to respond. Say to them, ‘This is the nation whose peo­ple will not obey the Lord their God and who refuse to be taught. Truth has van­ished from among them; it is no longer heard on their lips.’” (Jer 7:27)

And lat­er:

“Jere­mi­ah, say to the peo­ple, ‘This is what the Lord says: When peo­ple fall down, don’t they get up again? When they dis­cov­er they’re on the wrong road, don’t they turn back? Then why do these peo­ple stay on their self-destructive path? Why do the peo­ple of Jerusalem refuse to turn back? They cling tight­ly to their lies and will not turn around.’” (Jer 8:4)

Here we are, Sixth Cen­tu­ry B.C., and the spir­i­tu­al state of God’s peo­ple is in a ter­ri­ble state. It makes my aggriev­e­ments look pet­ty. And maybe that’s the point. The rela­tion­ship between God and His peo­ple have been in a rol­lar coast­er ride for mil­len­nia. Sure, Jesus’ new covenant brought about a lot of changes but didn’t end hypocrisy or faith­less­ness. Protes­tants can point to the ref­or­ma­tion and Friends to the new peo­ple gath­ered by George Fox but both move­ments long ago floun­dered on the shoals of human weak­ness. His­to­ry hasn’t stopped. The tri­als of the spir­i­tu­al don’t stop. We don’t get a free ride of spir­i­tu­al ease just because we’re on the cur­rent edge of human history.

As ear­ly Friends were aware, a spir­i­tu­al life still requires lift­ing of the cross. It’s easy to let dis­ap­point­ments lead to despair, and to retreat into the many temp­ta­tions of the mod­ern world has at ready sup­ply. In that state it’s easy to put off wor­ry­ing about our duties to our fel­low humans, to life on earth and to God. Every once in a while I’ll get whiny about some­thing and my dear wife will say “get over it and do what you need to do already.” We’ve remem­bered the sto­ry of Jere­mi­ah for 2500 years for the same rea­son: “you think you’ve got it bad, you’re not being dec­i­mat­ed and enslaved in Baby­lon!” Perspective.

* * *

I’m still think­ing about one of the con­ver­sa­tions I had the oth­er week at Vineland Men­non­ite Church–about the dif­fer­ence between the­ol­o­gy and Bib­li­cism. I like the­ol­o­gy and I like learn­ing about the con­text of Bible sto­ries I read. I enjoy hear­ing new the­o­ries about old para­dox­es (for exam­ple, Mar­tin Luther King’s take on the sto­ry of the Good Samar­i­tan fas­ci­nates me in part because it reminds me that the sto­ry is set on a real road and is intend­ed as a sto­ry about real peo­ple mak­ing dif­fi­cult choic­es). But I’m also aware that it’s easy to spend so much time read­ing and talk­ing about the com­men­tary that I for­get to read the orig­i­nal sto­ries them­selves. If sto­ries are reli­gious ed, then we have to remem­ber to actu­al­ly read the sto­ries. Some­times when I stum­ble on the cool blogs of the clever­est min­is­ters I won­der if they stop to actu­al­ly read the sto­ries. So much ener­gy seems to be expend­ed on mak­ing up new words and giv­ing mes­sages of easy hope. I can’t see Jere­mi­ah join­ing them at the local church brew pub fest to hoist a Rolling Rock. The cur­rent New Tes­ta­ment read­ing in the One Year Bible is Paul’s let­ter to the Coloss­ian, which includes this gem:

Don’t let any­one cap­ture you (Colos­sians) with emp­ty philoso­phies and high-sounding non­sense that come from human think­ing and from the spir­i­tu­al pow­ers of this world, rather than from Christ.

I’m sure George Fox hoot­ed in joy when he read that line! The sto­ries remind us that all is not well and that all will not be well. Temp­ta­tions still nips at our best inten­tions. The great­est temp­ta­tion is self-reliance. Our test as indi­vid­u­als and as a peo­ple will be demon­strat­ed by how we patient­ly and faith­ful­ly we bear the hard­ships we encounter and keep our trust in the risen Christ.

  • Katrani

    Mar­tin, you wrote this for Chris­tians, but it’s applic­a­ble to peo­ple of any reli­gion. (But I still cling to “All shall be well…,” even though I know I won’t see it in my lifetime.)

  • Mar­tin, I like this essay very much!

    As regards the pas­sage you quote from Colos­sians (verse 2:8), George Fox would of course have read it in the Autho­rised (“King James”) trans­la­tion, and had access to the old­er Gene­va trans­la­tion, and in those ver­sions, which are more lit­er­al, it comes across rather differently.

    What your ver­sion ren­ders “human think­ing” is in the AV/KJV “the tra­di­tion of men” — which Fox, in com­mon with most reli­gious schol­ars, would have seen as a fair­ly clear ref­er­ence to reli­gious tra­di­tion. So in Fox’s under­stand­ing, this part of the verse would have been a rebuke to those who accept post-apostolic add-ons to Chris­tian­i­ty, things like the doc­trine of pur­ga­to­ry and the idea of Chris­t­ian war.

    What your ver­sion ren­ders “from the spir­i­tu­al pow­ers of this world” is in the AV/KJV “after the rudi­ments of the world”, and in the old­er Gene­va Bible “accord­ing to the rudi­ments of the world”. The mar­gin­al notes to the Gene­va Bible explain the word “rudi­ments” as a ref­er­ence to “the cer­e­monies of the Law” as dis­tinct from the Gospel, mak­ing this part of the verse a rep­e­ti­tion of the same idea expressed in the phrase “the tra­di­tion of men”. And many ear­ly Friends, Fox includ­ed, would have been famil­iar from child­hood with the Gene­va Bible’s interpretation.

    But in seventeenth-century Eng­lish, the stan­dard mean­ing of “rudi­ments” was “ele­ments” or “basic com­po­nents”, and the phrase “the world” did not nec­es­sar­i­ly mean “Jew­ish reli­gion”. And thus the phrase “the rudi­ments of the world” could eas­i­ly have been under­stood by an intel­li­gent seventeenth-century read­er as mean­ing “the basic premis­es of sec­u­lar think­ing” — ideas like “God helps those who help them­selves” and “the best defense is a good offense”. It is at least pos­si­ble that Fox, who was always a deep thinker and didn’t feel bound by stan­dard inter­pre­ta­tions, took the words in that more basic sense.

    • Thanks for look­ing that up Mar­shall. I’d love to do anoth­er round of the One Year Bible plan with the King James (I’m assum­ing no one’s assem­bled it out of Gene­va). I don’t regret the New Liv­ing, as it’s helped my access, but I know there’s a lot of places where impor­tant nuances about 17th cen­tu­ry inter­pre­ta­tions will be lost.

  • Broschultz

    A part of the beau­ty of the scrip­tures is their time­less­ness. They apply to the human con­di­tion and the basic human con­di­tion hasn’t changed since Adam and Eve- it’s the first story.:)

  • Rene Lape

    I appre­ci­ate all you say here. I think Fox clear­ly saw the bib­li­cal sto­ry as repli­cat­ing itself in the lives of every­one. We go through the var­i­ous “min­is­tra­tions” of con­dem­na­tion, of Moses (the law), of the prophets (espe­cial­ly John the Bap­tist) and then into the new, res­ur­rect­ed rela­tion­ship with God in Christ. His “take” on it all was very impor­tant to me in com­ing back to Christ. Stan­ley Hauer­was was also very impor­tant. His “nar­ra­tive the­ol­o­gy” is an inspir­ing way of approach­ing the sto­ry. If you aren’t acquaint­ed with him, I would rec­om­mend him. Thank you for the work you do bring­ing us all togeth­er to share our perspectives.