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Anne Lamott: food for thought

Today Anne Lamott was a guest on "Weekday," the morning talk show at KUOW, the local NPR station. (You can listen at this archive link as soon as it's active.)

I haven't read much of Lamott, but on the whole I've liked the excerpts from her books that I've come across. I have several friends who are nuts about Lamott and her "liberal feminist Democrat Christian" take on Jesus. Maybe I'm less enthusiastic because I don't see eye to eye with Lamott on everything, but I still respect her ability to put her experience of Christianity into words on a page. And I ain't the sort of Christian who insists that everyone agree with me on political and social issues.


I was still disappointed with the way Lamott came across on the radio. She says she became a Christian because she "fell in love with Jesus" — and that's fantastic. But then she goes on to say that she "doesn't believe in the literal truth of the Bible," and uses the standard "Jesus never said anything about it" copout to get around traditional Christian teachings on sexuality — and not just the A-word and the H-word; she alleges that Jesus' teachings on sex are limited to a single mention of marriage. On top of that, she attributes the statement "Faith without works is dead" to the Apostle Paul when, in fact, that statement comes from the Epistle of James — it's probably the single biggest point of difference between James and the Pauline epistles.

I understand that a 1-hour radio talk show doesn't give one enough time to fully explain one's approach to the Bible, but Lamott's remarks came across as a shallow, facile dismissal. I myself don't think the entire Bible is literally true, since parts of it contain poetry, metaphor, and highly symbolic language. But that doesn't give me license to reject the parts I don't like — or to be uninformed about what the Bible says. Jesus certainly addressed marriage more than once in the Gospels, and he does talk a bit about sexual ethics in the Sermon on the Mount, although perhaps he doesn't say as much as we might expect.

Furthermore, if one has fallen in love with Jesus, then one must believe that the Bible speaks some kind of truth on some level — because the Bible is what gives you Jesus. If the Bible isn't true, then why should Lamott believe in Jesus at all, let alone fall in love with him? Whether Lamott likes it or not, the "Jesus didn't mention it" argument is based on a standard literal interpretation of the Gospels, if not the rest of the Bible. If the Gospels aren't true in something resembling a literal sense, then you can't assume that they contain the actual sayings of Jesus. It then becomes meaningless to talk about whether Jesus did or didn't mention any particular thing.

Is Lamott approaching Jesus as a fictional character, and saying she fell in love with him the way one might love Rosalind, or David Copperfield, or Sherlock Holmes? I don't think so — and anyway, the Gospels don't purport to be fiction. I don't think Lamott herself would be too happy if I wrote her and said, "I love your essays even though I haven't read them, and I'm convinced you just made up everything that happens in them." Surely she doesn't mean to say that she's treating Jesus that way.

I believe that God's nature is most perfectly revealed in the person of Jesus as described in the Gospels, so where the Gospels and the Old Testament disagree I'll take the Gospels every time. Nonetheless I think it's a mistake to dismiss the rest of the Bible. After all, the Old Testament gives you the historical, religious and cultural context into which Jesus was incarnated, and the rest of the New Testament tells you how his followers worked out what his teachings would mean in their lives. If you believe that Jesus came to set the record straight on what God is like, and that most of his teaching involves correcting the ways God had been misunderstood, then it's just possible that those issues he didn't talk much about are the issues on which he had nothing to add or nothing to correct with respect to what first-century Jews already believed and taught. (Now there's a scary thought.) The "Jesus never said anything about ______" argument makes sense only if you assume Jesus was speaking into a vacuum, where no one else had said anything about ______ either. And that is most emphatically not the case.

And, of course, not only does the Bible give you the context for Jesus, church history and tradition give you the context for the Bible. This is the next step for me, a lifelong Protestant who senses a growing need to investigate the writings of the church fathers. In Lamott's case, maybe that's too much to ask, but it does seem reasonable to expect that if she's going to discuss the Bible on talk shows, she ought to evince more familiarity with it.

I think it's terrific that Anne Lamott is in love with Jesus. I think one of her great gifts is to make Jesus attractive to other people who might never have considered him, and to get some of us who've loved Jesus a long time to take a fresh look at him.

But loving Jesus is only the first step. He doesn't want us for a secret admirer, or a one-night stand, or even a steady girl. He wants us for his bride — and I don't think it's the kind of marriage where the husband makes all the concessions. Jesus, after all, is the guy who said, "If you love me, keep my commandments" (ouch!). Yes, he takes us as we are — but are we willing to do the same for him?


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