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11 January 2018

Sock-puppet theology: Meditation gone bad.

Or as I call it, sock-puppet meditation.

Beginning with the frequently-misunderstood passage:

Hebrews 12.1-2 KWL
1 Consequently we who have a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us,
who put aside every weight and easily-distracting sin:
We run the contest set before us through patient endurance,
looking to the start and finish of faith: Jesus.
2 He endured in joy instead of on what was set before him,
despising the dishonorable cross, and sits at the right of God’s throne.

It’s a sports metaphor, and since we do track and field events a little differently than they did in the Roman Empire, stands to reason Christians will miss, and misinterpret, some of the ideas.

The “cloud of witnesses” among them. Nefós/“cloud” is an odd wording. Christian tradition has borrowed the pagan idea of dead relatives looking down from the heavens upon the living, and interpret this verse to mean departed saints who once witnessed about Jesus, who watch present-day saints as spectators. Cheering us on, we hope. (Cringing at how we repeat all their old mistakes, more likely.)

It’s not at all what the author of Hebrews meant. She meant fellow runners.

See, the ancients didn’t run on the rubber or polyurethane surface we put on our running tracks today: They ran on dirt. And what do you get when a bunch of runners race through dirt? Clouds. There’s your cloud of witnesses: Fellow runners. Active co-participants. Not spectators, who usually can’t see through the clouds, which is why we switched to asphalt tracks, and eventually to the stuff we use now. Modern technology made it so we can’t recognize the context anymore, and now the CEV, GNB, and NLT straight-up translate nefós as “crowd.” Meaning, most of us imagine, the crowd of spectators.

I bring this up ’cause the interpretation of a passage makes a really big difference when we meditate upon it. As we do; as we should. But if our mental image of a “cloud of witnesses” consists of spectators instead of co-laborers, we’re gonna get a very different mental image. One which can go all kinds of wrong.

Sock-puppet “wisdom.”

Lemme bring up John C. Maxwell’s book Running with the Giants. It was inflicted upon me as a devotional nine years ago, and you’ll quickly see why I didn’t care for it: Maxwell neither knew, nor really cared, about the bible’s historical context. He had 10 principles to share, wanted to put ’em in the mouths of bible characters, and didn’t care whether they were appropriate to these people or their times.

So the book begins with Maxwell imagining a stadium, in which Christian track ’n field is going on. And from time to time, a great figure from the bible comes down from the stands to encourage the participants. They have stories to tell about when they competed. And life lessons to share… you know, the point of the book.

After receiving life lessons from Abraham, Esther, Joseph, Moses, and Noah, by the sixth chapter Maxwell felt so jazzed about all the good advice he got from these biblical characters, he “can’t wait to act on the empowerment I have received” from them, “to put it to good use.” Maxwell 79

Um… from them?

This is gonna sound ridiculous, but it’s on purpose, so bear with me. Imagine I were a motivational speaker, and you just paid a buttload of money to fly to the convention center where I’m speaking, and listen to me give you profound life-coaching wisdom. Since I’m known for being Christian, supposedly it’ll be biblical. Anyway, after my introduction and a brief speech, I suddenly whip out a sock puppet, claim it’s Abraham, and have a conversation with it. “And I imagine it’d go… something like this,” as Bob Newhart would say.

ME. “So Abraham! Thanks for visiting me.”
MY HAND “ABRAHAM.” “No problem. Glad to take a break from paradise to teach you some of these valuable life lessons.”
ME. “What biblical advice could you give me for my life?”
“ABRAHAM.” “God always does the right thing.”
ME. “Wow, that’s profound! So how’d you learn that particular jewel of wisdom?”
“ABRAHAM.” “I could hardly believe it when God called me to leave home and go to the land he would give my descendants. I went immediately…” Maxwell 72
ME. “Immediately? Wait, didn’t you stay in Haran, Syria, for some time after God first called you out of Ur, Sumer?” Ge 11.31, 15.7
“ABRAHAM.” “Don’t interrupt me with historical context. I’m making a point here.”

Okay. If I know more bible than my sock puppet, obviously I’m doing a routine. As everyone already knows. I’m making the sock puppet talk, so I decide what the puppet “knows” and doesn’t. And if the puppet tells me anything I “find profound,” it’s also part of the routine.

This is way more obvious when I have a sock on my hand. Way less so when John Maxwell is having an imaginary conversation with Abraham. But this “Abraham” is still a sock puppet, whose knowledge is entirely determined by what Maxwell makes him say. And if Maxwell doesn’t know his bible, and doesn’t know Abraham’s historical context, his puppet ain’t gonna sound like the historical Abraham.

Lots of Christians engage in this type of meditation: They imagine they’re someplace talking with saints. Or imagine they’re back in bible times, listening to Jesus in person, or listening to Moses or David or Solomon or any of the prophets in person. But the details they see and hear, are limited by their own knowledge. If they’re picturing Jesus as a white guy, they have that wrong at least. What if they forget to picture Jesus as having the fruit of the Spirit? What if he’s not loving, joyous, peaceful, patient, kind? What if he’s kind of a dick like they are?

What if they’re projecting themselves onto everything?

This is what happens when our meditation is based on partial knowledge… or blistering ignorance. Our meditation is supposed to remain focused on bible. Be grounded in bible. Stay in bible. Not go off on weird tangents with sock puppets. Otherwise you’ll wind up with what I call “sock-puppet theology”: You think it’s based on the scriptures. Really it’s based on your own fertile imagination. And I needn’t remind you what many a rancher uses as fertilizer.

What’s in your sock?

I don’t like critiquing popular authors. Because they’re popular, and their books have sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and I’m just some blogger with a few hundred readers, I stand a better-than-average chance of looking like an envious jerk, who’s sniping at ’em out of pure jealousy.

And lemme point out: Most of Maxwell’s advice isn’t bad advice. It’s moral, and for the most part it’s practical. If you’re in business, as most of Maxwell’s readers are, it won’t hurt for you to read and follow his advice. You’d be way more ethical than most capitalists. Just remember God doesn’t grade on a curve; he still expects us to be like Jesus.

But lemme also make clear Maxwell’s advice isn’t actually coming from bible characters. It’s entirely coming from Maxwell. Just because he puts his advice into their mouths doesn’t make it bible. Or God.

I mean, I could try to glean some business advice from “Abraham” for ya…

“ABRAHAM.” “When God told me, ‘Go get me a three-year-old cow, three-year-old male and female goats, a dove, and a nesting pigeon,’ Ge 15.9 what he was tryina remind us was we should diversify our portfolios. Don’t just invest in one thing. I raised many different types of animals; not just sheep and camels. If I’d only raised doves, I’d’ve lost my whole flock when the bird flu came.”
ME. “Bird flu didn’t come till the 21st century of my era.”
“ABRAHAM.” “21st century BC, AD, what’s the difference?”
ME. “The difference is you lived nearly four millennia before New York was even founded, yet somehow you have a Brooklyn accent.”
“ABRAHAM.” “Like I have anything to do with how your subconscious works.”

Or Maxwell’s.

’Cause I’ll say it again: My sock puppet acts like how I imagine Abraham. I don’t know the actual Abraham ben Terah. He lived 41 centuries ago. I know some of his descendants, and I might unthinkingly borrow some of their mannerisms if I’m trying to portray Abraham; hence my sock puppet’s Brooklyn accent. But Abraham didn’t even speak English. (For that matter he might not have spoken Hebrew! He’s from Sumer, remember?)

See, I can only speculate about Abraham’s motives and thought processes. But all I really know comes from ancient history… and from the Abraham stories in the bible. If I wanna riff on Abraham, I’m gonna fall way short of the actual Abraham. I know this, which is why I’ll only go so far.

Maxwell, though he claimed in his book he’d been studying the bible for 40-plus years (and now that’s more like 50) clearly wasn’t so self-aware. When you’re trying to extrapolate a character, you tend to fill in the blanks with bits of yourself, or other people you know. I use the analogy of a sock puppet because a sock is entirely limp and inert. The puppet is mostly hand. Its entire life and character comes from thrusting a hand into it. Sock-puppet theology takes our clever ideas, dresses ’em up as bible characters, and claims they’re biblical.

That’s always the danger in using our imagination to meditate: If we don’t constantly stay focused on the scriptures, and draw from them instead of filling in the gaps with ourselves, the entire exercise becomes entirely imaginary. It profits us nothing.

The “giants of the faith”—and contrary to the book title, in Maxwell’s imagination he never actually jogs with any of them!—start with brief recaps of their stories, but quickly turn into Disney cartoon versions. Ancient middle easterners become plucky Americans who are pretty sure trusting God will turn into guaranteed worldly success. So much wrong with this idea. But good luck selling books if you teach otherwise.