Sock-puppet theology: Meditation gone bad.

by K.W. Leslie, 15 November

Let’s begin with a frequently-misunderstood passage, which I’ve elsewhere discussed in more detail.

Hebrews 12.1-2 KWL
1 Consequently we, being greatly encircled by a cloud of witnesses,
throwing away every training weight and easily-distracting sin,
can enduringly run the race lying before us,
2 looking at the start and finish of our faith, Jesus.
Instead of the joy lying before him, Jesus endured a cross, dismissing the shame.
Now he sits at the right of God’s throne!

This is a sports metaphor. Since we do track and field events a little differently than the ancient Romans did, stands to reason Christians will mix up some of the ideas. The “cloud of witnesses” among them: It refers to the runners. It’s our fellow Christian witnesses, running through dirt, kicking up dust. Since today’s stadiums use polyurethane and rubber tracks—so we can actually see the runners, not a massive dust cloud—we don’t recognize the historical context of this verse anymore. Hence Christians guess at what νέφος/néfos, “cloud,” means… and guess wrong. Usually it’s heavenly spectators.

So now lemme bring up John C. Maxwell’s book Running with the Giants. I worked at a church camp a decade ago, and this book was inflicted upon me as a devotional. Leadership principles are Maxwell’s shtick, and he had 10 leadership principles to share. Like many a Christian, he wanted to put ’em into the mouths of bible characters, so it’d look like these principles come from bible. And since he knows little about historical context—and certainly doesn’t care, ’cause it’d make book-writing so much harder… well you can quickly see why I dislike this book.

The book begins with Maxwell envisioning a stadium with Christian track ’n field going on. From time to time, a great figure from the bible comes down from the “cloud of witnesses” in the stands, to encourage us runners. They’re not running with us, in Maxwell’s imagination; they’re all done. Now they have stories and life lessons to share; which is the point of the book.

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

Except none of it came from them. Maxwell put all the words in their mouths. As anybody who knows historical context can tell, ’cause very little of what he imagined his “bible characters” said, are what they’d actually say. Far more what a present-day motivational speaker says.

Their mouths. Our words.

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 all be bible-based. Or at least it won’t be anti-Christian. Right?

Imagine after my introduction and a brief speech, I suddenly whip out a sock puppet. “This is Abraham,” I announce. No, it’s not a puppet whose name happens to be Abraham; it’s the Abraham. Avram ben Terah from the bible, the Aramean nomad from Ur, Sumer, who moved to Canaan and whose descendants now fill the middle east. That Abraham. Ignore the googly eyes and the sports stripes; it’s totally him.

And now I 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.” “Look, I’m trying to make a point here. Don’t interrupt me with historical context.”

Okay. If I know more bible than my sock puppet, obviously I’m doing a routine. I make the sock puppet talk, so I decide what the puppet “knows” and doesn’t. And when the puppet says anything and I respond, “Wow, that’s profound!” the whole “wow” factor is also part of the act. Puppets never truly surprise the puppeteer. At all.

I’m using the sock-puppet illustration ’cause this is way more obvious when I’m standing on a stage talking to a sock on my hand. It’s way less so when John Maxwell writes about his imaginary conversation with Abraham. But his “Abraham” is still a sock puppet. “Abraham’s” knowledge is still entirely determined by what Maxwell knows—and doesn’t know—and what Maxwell therefore makes him say. When Maxwell doesn’t know his bible, and doesn’t know Abraham’s historical context, his puppet ain’t gonna sound at all like the historical Abraham. He’s gonna sound like a 21st-century American.

Now to my point.

Lots of Christians engage in Ignatian meditation: They visualize themselves back in bible times, talking with saints. Usually in the actual bible locations, not a track ’n field stadium, but whatever. They’re listening to Jesus in person, or listening to Moses or David or Solomon or any of the prophets in person. It’s a valid practice; we can get a lot of insights from it.

But we should always remember the details we see and hear, are limited by our own knowledge. If we’re picturing Jesus as a white guy, we have that wrong at least. What if we 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 we can be? What if we’re projecting ourselves 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 we wind up with what I call “sock-puppet theology”: We think it’s based on the scriptures. Really it’s based on our own fertile imaginations. 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.