It is a sin for a woman to cut her hair. The Bible is clear about that. I can cite you chapter and verse if you like. And the King James Version gives plain direction that a woman is to wear her unshorn hair upon her head. That means up on, not hanging down her back. The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!
The Bible also instructs the followers of Christ to physically handle poisonous snakes as evidence of the power of God’s Spirit. “They shall handle snakes…” scripture plainly demands. The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!
The Bible also is clear about communion being the actual body and blood of Christ. “This is my body…this is my blood…” Not symbolism. The real thing. The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it!
OK, maybe the snake interpretation is a bit far out (though not to a devout group of Christians in the Appalachian Mountains who still hold to this tradition). But I grew up in a tradition that believed fervently the doctrine about women’s hair. The faithful still do. My mother and sister never did cut their hair! And Peggy grew up in a church that has built an entire theology around the actual body and blood of Christ. How do such beliefs get lifted out of scripture to gain positions of doctrinal prominence?
Doing theology is a noble pursuit. It is man’s attempt to understand God and figure out what it takes to gain God’s favor. For Christians, the Bible provides the best clues. We call the book holy, the word of God. It would make sense, then, that we would pore over these scriptures to decipher God’s will. The difficulty is that those of us doing the poring are earth-bound humans whose only deciphering tools are logic and human experience. And, of course, those personal, hard-to-evaluate God-told-me revelations. Each Christian tradition has its own select set of beliefs and the scriptures to back them up. The challenge for those who lead these diverse groups is to figure out which verses to emphasize and which to downplay, and present a convincing rationale for why.
Sometimes a political position or lifestyle issue will determine the selection of scriptures. Like the issue of drinking alcohol did in my parents’ church. Somewhere back in its history this church sided with the abolitionists against alcohol consumption. A couple of scriptures were lifted out of the Bible to support this position and drinking became a sin. Other scriptures (like Jesus turning water into wine) had to be sanitized to fit the anti-drinking doctrine. It wasn’t really wine, we were taught, it was grape juice. When you’re limited by logic, that’s how doing theology has to work.
But when logic fails us, when our theology can’t be explained rationally, then we must resort to “mystery.” Like in Peggy’s church when the scientific data won’t support the actual transformation of wine and wafer into blood and flesh. The doctrine is too important, too central, to the long-held tradition that it cannot be subjected to scientific inquiry. Some things must be accepted by faith. It is a mystery.
Or if we are really bold, we might tiptoe to the dangerous precipice of doubt, the place we are warned from childhood to stay far away from. Many curious souls, we have been told, have ventured too close, lost their footing on a slippery slope of heresy, and plunged to their eternal destruction. No, it is far safer to remain within the protection of a tried and true theology that has provided safety and comfort for many. Why take the risk?
Yet, every once in a while, something on our faith journey goes seriously wrong. A poisonous snake strikes the hand of a faithful believer. Our doctrine of divine protection doesn’t keep our daughter from being raped. Our doctrine of faith healing doesn’t arrest our wife’s cancer. Our doctrine of prayer doesn’t deliver as promised. A tragedy happens. A beloved one dies. Our theology lets us down, badly. The explanations do not satisfy. We are pushed to the precipice.
It is at such a moment that we are confronted with three terrifying choices. We can reject our faith in God and the failed theologies it has been built upon. Or we can cling tightly to our belief system and shoulder the responsibility for its failure (too little faith, didn’t pray enough, etc.). Or we can reach out to a God who is much bigger than our theology, a God who will not be confined by our logic, a God who is altogether good and who needs not explain Himself to us. It is at such a moment that faith in God becomes distinct from faith in our belief about God.
Bob Lupton, April 2010