Monday, October 31, 2011

The Diatesseron for Evangelicals

Currently my wife and I do church at a local Christian and Missionary Alliance church. It's in many ways your typical American Evangelical church. I go back and forth on whether or not I think it's a healthy place for me; on the one hand the people who attend are really nice, they hold a high value on table fellowship and the role that food should play in a church and while I have issues with the ideological underpinnings of how they talk about justice they actually put a lot of their money where their mouth is by housing the local food bank and regularly encouraging parishioners to be sure to donate coats/canned goods/socks/blankets/etc. in a near never ending drive. While I think this amounts more to charity than justice, that is a topic for another post.
My rub with this church is often more of an issue of hermeneutics - that is how we interpret or understand what the Bible means - or ecclesiastical practices. This isn't necessarily always a bad thing though. In many ways it keeps me on my toes. The sermon, which I rarely agree with, often draws on texts that I tend to gloss over and or would be easier to interpret if I was say a little more Reformed than I tend to be, just to pick one example. As Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann says "we are all selective fundamentalists who pick and choose a package of certitudes that will sustain a particular stance of faith in action in the world" (Redescribing Reality p.131). Brueggemann also points out that all of us do this with the Bible as well, we pick out the texts that we like and we come up with fancy (or not) ways of ignoring the parts of the Bible we don't like and instead spend our time waxing eloquently on the parts we do. It's a complex book, it's bound to happen.

(Finally He Gets Around to What Happened this Week)
On Sunday this week we were pointed one of the billion or so little inserts falling out of our program to one that talked about how we as a church were going to be going through the Gospels. "That's fantastic!" I thought and looked at the back of the sheet to find out how they had chosen to break up the readings. Which gospel will we go through first? Mark? That one really is my personal favorite and reading them chronologically as written would make a lot of sense. Maybe John? I'd grown to appreciate John a lot more after reading John's Gospel & the Renewal of the Church by Wes Howard-Brook which helped me see the conflict embedded in the text instead of a Jesus who is all puppies and sunshine and gets executed for being really really nice.

Nope. We are going through all of the gospels at once. This bothers me for a couple of reasons:
  1. 1) The Early Church rejected attempts at gospel harmonization. The Diatessaron, an early attempt at harmonizing the gospels written by the Apologist Tatian was really popular and yet it was thrown out as a heresy (heresy or not isn't my litmus test - We're all heretics to someone). In my mind the church father's (sorry ladies) had the foresight to see the unique things that each of the Gospels had to bring. Which brings me right to my second point
  2. We loose narrative functions and are unable to see unique properties of each book when we read them all at the same time. This is the same reason I don't like it when pastors pull verses from dozens of different sources throughout the Bible to make their points. It is important that we learn to read the author as if he weren't an idiot. This means, I think reading the Bible in bigger chunks (ever watched a movie in 5 min chunks? Think the narrative will stick with you as well as if you'd just watched it in one sitting? Think you'll catch all of the subtleties?) and assuming that the author of that particular text is actually saying something that can stand on it's own without needing to be buttressed from every angle.
  3. I see this as being especially a problem for non-liturgical churches because we often times don't see the text in one large piece but will break the parables (for instance) off from the context in which they are being told. Who Jesus is interacting with seems like an afterthought as if Luke is writing down a parable going "Crap! Well were should Jesus say this? Hmmm, well I haven't put him by the sea in a while and let's have him talking to beggars"

What about you? Am I overstating my case? Are there benefits that I'm missing (Perhaps we are more likely to notice the distinctions when we read them side by side - "How many angels were there at the tomb? One or two")?


  1. christel nicholsonNovember 4, 2011 at 6:39 PM

    I understand where you are comming from...and though it is my nature in all...thought process discussed out take an opposing position in order to give the conversation better understanding for dont take it personally...but for me church is what it is...its like walking into someone elses house and telling them how they should run it...about 10 years ago my soul was really struggling and in anguish because in many ways going to church made me feel less close to made me feel "fakeish" in my faith...
    So though I think struggling in our faith and with God/Jesus and constantly questioning ourselves...where we stand...what we as an idividual should be very important for growth...i think sometimes getting caught up in fixing "the establishment" ends up wasting our energy that we could be putting elsewhere...The body of believers you "rest" with on the 7th day should challenge you yes...but should also make you feel ultimately closer in your relationship...
    So does your church make you closer to God...even if it just reminds you weekly to search for yourself and not to expect to be spoon fed the answers? God bless...the point is not to find the answers...I think...Its to find the right questions :) Tolstoys confessions was recently recomended to me by a friend...its short...highly recomend it...and if you ever want to write your own sermon invite me over to listen :) May the Spirit guide you...namaste :)

  2. Thanks for the post Christel,
    I haven't gotten to Tolstoy yet (he's on a near never ending list).
    As for what you said about walking into someone else's house and making demands I don't think that should be an apt analogy for the church (I think it often times is but I don't think it should be). The church isn't a shop and the parishioners aren't customers waiting to be served. But we are one body and this means we should be open on at least some level to critiques of how things are done from all participants. I'm not saying it needs to change, I'm saying I see what seems to me to be problems in the current approach that I think hurts us in the end.
    As for preaching, they have let me behind the pulpit once so far. If you are interested you can find that here (

  3. Alright, Gus, I'm about two weeks late, but here I am!

    I would agree with you that the early Church resisted collapsing the four, but I would add that the Church also has the creeds that do just that. In my own practice I try to balance both sides of that scale--when I teach my Sunday school class (this is one of the advantages I have--I'm the sole adult Sunday-school teacher in my congregation), I tell 'em that, as a spiritual discipline, we're going to try our hardest to imagine Jesus through the Mark perspective (most recently) or through whatever other book we're reading together. I certainly have those who resist that, but for the most part folks appreciate it.