The Interpretive Twist 


Many religious leaders write short pieces for the newsletter of their religious community. Most of these are fairly simple, often very general thoughts about current happenings in the community. Some leaders, though, take the exercise more seriously and attempt to use the column as another avenue for treating with a little depth various issues of life. As a pastor, I worked at writing such columns. Over the years, I used various titles for my pastor’s column. I ended up finally writing nearly weekly a column titled “The Interpretive Twist by The Twisted Interpreter.” This page contains a few of my favorites.

The Interpretive Twist by The Twisted Interpreter

“Heaven and Earth Will Pass Away”

 We’re back now from a brief trip to Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco, in Mexico, where I officiated at a wedding for the son and now daughter-in-law of one of my oldest friends. It was overall a rewarding trip—excellent weather, except for the few hours surrounding the time scheduled for the wedding itself (wouldn’t you know it!); excellent food (the hotel offered up large buffets with international varieties of food); time with friends while making new acquaintances; long walks on the streets of the old town; palm trees everywhere sporting ripening coconuts; and dips in the boat-dotted, warm Pacific waters of the Bahía de Banderas (Bay of Flags).

            I realized once again how much I enjoy being in foreign cultures. It piques my sociological curiosity to move about in other ways of life. It is particularly rewarding to hear and pick up bits and pieces of a foreign language. It always makes me want to work at that language for a deeper plunge into another “world.” It’s a special kind of delight to carry on even a short conversation in a foreign language with a native. Having gone through the trials and struggle to learn a second language only as an adult, I’ve often envied those who grow up speaking two or more languages. What an advantage it is to read and communicate in various languages in our globalized world! However, I sometimes wonder whether those who’ve grown up multi-lingual know the same pleasure of alternating between languages as someone who came to that ability as an adult.

            One of the most striking aspects of the trip, though, had nothing to do with the pleasures of a beach resort or the curiosities of a foreign culture, but rather with the sense of technological change. While I was on vacation from the pastorate, I was not on vacation from teaching.

            I’m currently teaching a course on the internet for Park University. It’s a new course I developed over the summer titled, “Sociology of Conflict, War, and Terror.” I didn’t want to teach it till the spring, but the program coordinator wanted to get it up and running as soon as possible. So here I was, in the first week of the course, six new students, all inputting their responses to “lectures” and questions in the course, and I’m supposed to respond within 48 hours.

            I took my laptop computer with me on the trip, hoping I’d be able to take advantage of the electronically interconnected world in a way I had not before. The first time I entered comments to students was while sitting in a sports bar in the airport in Phoenix. Two days later, I was sitting in our hotel room in Puerto Vallarta responding to my students’ work.

            I know this is not a new thing; many people have been doing it for years. But I was knocked out by the difference from the old days when teaching meant going into a particular room at a particular time to face students in the flesh and this current scheme whereby I’m responding at whatever hour from a foreign country to students scattered all over the United States and maybe even beyond.

            When the Buddha said, “Everything comes to an end,” and Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away,” they didn’t exactly mean that everything will keep on changing, but it’s their words that come to mind when experiencing the tempo of change today.

––AKJ, 11/1/09

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The Interpretive Twist by the Twisted Interpreter

“Science and religion” 

     I must confess to a bit of impatience with all the debate and argument about science and religion. The real issue is a matter of the difference between science and theology, and they are two very different things. The religious right is well organized and well financed, so they're able to force us into dealing with issues, such as "creation science," which should be non-issues, and here's why:

      Science is a practice humans do for navigating life in a natural world. Science is the systematic and disciplined study of nature from a naturalistic perspective. "Systematic" means that it's rational and logical, pursuing a coherent and dependable understanding of reality. "Disciplined" means it's empirical; that is, it must conform to evidence, directly or indirectly identifiable by an impartial observer. "Naturalistic" means that scientific explanations must restrict themselves to natural reality. In other words, one part of nature can be explained only in terms of another part of nature. For example, science can explain comets in terms of debris in the universe caught in elliptical orbits in the force-field of gravity. Science cannot explain comets as warnings from a supernatural God about the end of the world. Note also that a scientist cannot claim that her/his theory is correct  because it was revealed by God in a moment of mystical illumination.

     Theology is a practice humans do to express their understanding of their experience of a sacred and transcendent reality (i.e., the reality of God). Theology is the systematic and disciplined study of all of reality from a theological or faith perspective. Confusion arises because theology, like science, is also systematic and disciplined. But notice the differences: "Systematic" means the same as in science; however, "disciplined" does not. Instead, it means disciplined by religious doctrines and authority. And theology is decidedly not naturalistic. "Creation science," for example, is not a science because its perspective is not naturalistic; it's theological. It assumes a divine creator and an infallible account of creation in the Book of Genesis, and it will not consider alternative possibilities, no matter what the evidence suggests.

     Note that science is restricted to the narrow reality of nature—natural events, natural causes, natural explanations. Theology or religion is concerned with all of reality, even that which transcends nature—ethics, revelation, divine love, divine justice, the reality of God. Science, then, cannot say anything about God. God is by definition outside the purview of science.

––AKJ, 2/20/05 

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The Interpretive Twist by the Twisted Interpreter

“Open or closed religion?” 

One of the most fundamental divides within religion is whether it is open or closed. The Closed argue that their religion is the only true religion, that it cannot be changed (because truth doesn't change), that those on the outside are, if not enemies of the divine, certainly misguided and somehow inferior to the true members of the faith. The Open argue that their religion is one among others, any or even all of which experience the reality of the divine in some way. The world's major religions (particularly Western religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have both open and closed segments.

         I side unequivocally with open religion. As I read the gospels, the man of Nazareth exercises a remarkably open spirit to people. I invite others to read the gospels and see for themselves. Make lists of the incidents where Jesus is accepting or embracing people and where he's rejecting them. It's quite illuminating who gets accepted and who gets rejected. (Hint: the arrogant, self-righteous, greedy, intolerant, hypocritical, and unkind seem to lose favor.)

         Since I believe in open religion, I also try to be open to other denominations and religions. As you know, I often offer up tidbits about other religions in this newsletter, hoping that they will help us understand others better––not to judge them, but to be tolerant and relational. Occasionally I quote in sermons from other religions' sacred texts without suggesting they're necessarily less authoritative than the Bible. Does that mean I can embrace anything that other religions do? that I am fully a relativist who says everything is a matter of opinion and perspective? By no means. Actually you might notice that taking a position for openness is a discriminating standard. It also shapes my critical views of other denominations and religions.

         For example, I stand opposed to double standards for men and women, such as is found in Catholicism and in Islam. My Catholic and Muslim friends must be able to accept that I believe in gender equality and will always oppose any policy that does otherwise. Until Roman Catholicism also ordains women, full reconciliation with me is not possible. Likewise with regard to the Christian practice of open or closed communion. I believe that God, through Jesus, has invited all people to the table, and it's not my place to decide who can come and who cannot. So I will remain at odds with Missouri Synod Lutherans, Catholics, and any other Christian denomination that systematically excludes people from the Lord's Table.

            Of course, some disagreements are more significant than others. Wiccans practice folk magic which I suspect is largely a waste of time but harmless. The Catholic requirement of celibacy for most priests seems foolish to me and leaves them deprived of many great pastors, but if Catholics accept it, I'm not going to fight it. In my view, these are closer to being matters of taste and preference, whereas depriving women of the same rights and privileges of men is a more fundamentally moral issue and one I'm willing to fight about.

         Open religion has standards. When the Closed say it doesn't, what they mean is that it doesn't have their standards.

––AKJ, 1/09/05  

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The Interpretive Twist by The Twisted Interpreter

“Is It A Wonderful World?” 

On July 6, 1971, jazz crooner Louis Armstrong died in New York City. I think about him and race relations whenever I hear his 1968-hit song, “What A Wonderful World.” It romanticizes everyday things of life, spinning them to conclude that it’s a wonderful world. In 1968 the world was not wonderful––the Vietnam War, the Biafran War, the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., racial conflict and riots in the U.S. Today, too, the world is not wonderful; although the U.S. is further along towards equality in race relations than it was back then. However, we hear regularly of American military personnel killing and being killed in a far-off land. We’re still struggling over issues of race, left over from slavery and years of legal segregation and discrimination.

            It seems to me that unless you’re quite well off and healthy and insensitive to the plight of others, it’s almost impossible to conclude that it’s a wonderful world. On the other hand, there is a certain hopeful defiance and obstinacy in singing such a song in the face of the world’s conflicts and suffering. The Bible doesn’t have anything quite like the sentiment that it’s a wonderful world, but it does have an attitude of what scholars call eschatological hope. Essentially it means living in confidence that God will continue to work redemption in our world until God and we get it right. It’s like believing the Kingdom of God is in our midst even though it’s not fully realized among us. It must be something like that, built into the nature of human beings that keeps us going . . . and singing.

––AKJ, 7/6/03

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The Interpretive Twist by The Twisted Interpreter

 “Father’s Day”

Today is Father’s Day—the traditional day for honoring our fathers, particularly by thanking them for what they’ve done for us.

            We tend to think that life would have been superb if we had had fathers who were wise, sensitive, caring, successful, strong, and, in every other way, as much like God as possible. Of course, the reality is that our fathers are more-or-less wise, sensitive, caring, etc. Some of us have had no father for one reason or another. Some of us have had fathers who were unfortunately less than adequate. Some of us have had terrific fathers. Probably all of us have had fathers with flaws.

            I’ve often thought about the reality of flawed fathers when I read Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:9-10) where he seems to assume that fathers will care for their children. He asks rhetorically: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” My guess is that even in Jesus’ day there were fathers who would give a stone instead of bread.

            Ernst Becker in The Denial of Death argues that growing up means learning to be fathers of ourselves. That’s an important insight. Growing up—becoming a mature adult—has got to mean, among other things, finally taking responsibility for ourselves. This means that we also become thankful for whatever those less-than-perfect parents of ours gave us in the way of nurture, wisdom, and care. It also means we start letting go of the anger and resentment for what they didn’t give us, for when they gave us snakes instead of fish. After all, has any one of us ever really done the very best we could?

            So, on this day, let us thank our fathers for whatever good they did. Let us also thank God for the good they did. And for what they couldn’t or wouldn’t do––let us pray for freedom from anger; let us pray for the courage and wisdom to do better.

––AKJ, 6/15/03 

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The Interpretive Twist by The Twisted Interpreter

“Gifts for Mother” 

"Honor your father and your mother," says the fifth commandment, "so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you." (Ex. 20:12) It's a common biblical refrain to act with honor and care towards our parents.

            Naturally some of my own thoughts in recent weeks have been about what I gave and didn't give my mother. I remember times when I wasn't sensitive to her needs, times when I could have helped in significant ways but was too wrapped up in my own life to be there for her. I remember times when I broke her heart. These are difficult memories because I had a mother who would have done anything she could to help me fill my dreams so long as she felt the dreams were not immoral or unkind or unjust. Whatever she didn't do to help me was because she was unable to or I didn't ask.

            In one reflective moment I asked myself, What, in general, did I give her? I came up with four things. I got that education she believed was so important—several times. I don't know that she understood much about the graduate degrees that I acquired, but I think she was pleased to watch Father Ted Hesburgh place the doctoral hood on me at Notre Dame (especially since I had skipped out on every other commencement for which I was eligible).

            A second thing I gave her was that I lived a more-or-less responsible life. The breakup of my first marriage hurt her deeply, and there were some other things she would have preferred I did differently, mainly so she wouldn't have to worry about me so much. But overall, I believe, she approved of my life. She wasn't ashamed of me; she never had to bail me out of jail or financial difficulties or other difficult fixes.

            Thirdly I was someone mother could talk to. We had a close relationship, and though most of my adult life was lived away, we shared much through phone calls, letters, and visits. I knew it was important to her to be able to talk to me about her frustrations and disappointments. It was important to her to be able to share her delight in a new novel or a movie or a vacation or her wonder at some odd and interesting experience. One of my fondest experiences is of her calling at 6:30 or 7:00 in the morning (often waking me up) while she was having her quiet moments before taking on another busy day.

            The fourth thing I was able to give mother, entirely unintentionally of course, was my wife Jean. Jean is such a remarkable woman, so caring and so ready to share. She talked with mother; she listened to her. There are few better listeners in this world. (Jean's not as hard-of listening as I!) Jean would remind me to call mother regularly. And she helped mother, respected her, valued her, was generous with her. It's quite possible that the greatest gift I gave mother was the gift of someone else. 

––AKJ, 10/9/05

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The Interpretive Twist by The Twisted Interpreter

“Another Kind of Heroism” 

            When you become the pastor of a church, you get to know a lot of new people. And as you learn the stories of the people, you realize again just how much pain and struggle most human beings go through in a lifetime. And you realize again—with humbling awareness—how very courageous people typically are. It’s a cliché to talk about getting up again after being knocked down, but that old cliché would make an appropriate slogan for the people of Good Shepherd: People who get back up—again and again and again!

            Of course, they’ll say things like, “God has been good to me” or “Other people have had it tougher.” These comments are true, but they only underscore the remarkable courage I see each time I learn the life stories of members of our church.

            There is a certain amount of ongoing recognition we give to people who do unusually heroic acts at times of risk: firefighters, law enforcers, members of the military. We’re not so good at recognizing the amazing courage of people who get up each day and go on about the duty of serving their family, their church, and their community, year after year, through times of impossible stress, through times of sorrow, through times of loss, through times of illness and injury, mental and physical pain. It’s one kind of heroism that acts in a moment of great danger; it’s another kind of heroism that keeps coming back in a lifetime of dutiful care in spite of life’s setbacks.

            I can understand why Paul wrote to the Philippians: “I thank my God for you every time I think of you; and every time I pray for you all, I pray with joy….”

––AKJ, 8/10/03 

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