To comprehend: (v) to listen to, consider, and understand the position of another person
If you thought that I was done talking about empathy, forgiveness, and the “Left Behind” movies, indulge me a little longer in order to comprehend what I am getting at…
Three Christians get together of a weekend in one’s cabin the woods. They spend the days outside hiking, gathering firewood, cleaning up for Spring garden planting. In the cool evenings, they decide to binge-watch the “Left Behind” movies, as a blast-from-them-past lark. Between movies, over a pint of beer, they chat about what they saw, and reminisce about those seminars they attended 20 years ago when the movies first came out. They have three different experiences of their movie watching. Why?
Let’s begin with understanding their beliefs, and how this affects their experience. As they are all Christians, they hold in common some core assumptions: God exists; God became human through Jesus; Jesus taught and healed people: Jesus died and resurrected three days later. Other theological points are likely to take them in lively discussion directions. Part of this divergence is that they have different assumptions about how to read and interpret scripture.
One of them comes with an assumption that scripture should be interpreted as a literary form. He sees scripture as narrative, poetry, history, and prophetic genres. The movies fall into the style of prophetic stories. As literature, the purpose is to present to the reader truths about life and society which transcend time and place in order for someone to recognize trends. Thus, the major and minor prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, the book of Revelation, Frankenstein, and the Hunger Games are all talking about dystopian times because of the failures of people. For this Christian, the movies are a warning about forgetting to do the right thing, thereby bringing on an apocalyptic series of events.
The second friend assumes that scripture should be read from a contextual perspective. Prophetic texts must be understood in the context of the time they were written, by the specific author’s involvement in those events, and the audience to whom the texts were written. Revising the meaning to fit another time results in errors of interpretation. Jesus’, Peter’s and Paul’s comments about being ready at all times were given to followers of the Way at a time when the Jewish or Roman leaders might arrest and imprison them on any day. John’s Revelation was written during the reign of Nero, and to seven churches in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Given the oppression of the followers of the Way, John could not state directly about the dangers of the Roman leaders, so he spoke in symbolic language of four horsemen, ten nations, a woman with twelve stars, etc. For this Christian, the movies are taking selected verses out of context and applying them to events 2000 years later, as if John would have known about the Moral Majority and Jerry Falwell, and spoken English with an American dialect.
The third Christian assumes that scripture should be read literally. God directly inspired the writers. What they wrote is correct. The transcriptions and translations are correct. What we need to do is accept what is written and see how it applies to our lives and society. For him, the various verses which are quoted by the characters in the movie are accurate, and portray how those prophecies will be fulfilled today.
Three different starting assumptions. Three different belief systems. Three different interpretations of the same scriptures and the movies.
Their conversation turns to discussing the facts which they each see as relevant to support their belief systems. At some point the concept of the Sign of the Beast, 666, comes up.
The literary Christian says within the genre of prophetic literature, especially in western literature in which good-versus-evil is played out, symbols of an evil character often emerge. He might even point out that the “Left Behind” movies came out about the same time as the “Matrix” movies. In many ways each series parallels the other. Each were produced in a trilogy fashion. Each had a good characters and bad characters. Those characters were caught in a series of end-times events. 666 in John’s Revelation, the “Left Behind” movies, and the sunglasses/suit and tie image of Mr. Smith are mere literary symbols.
The contextual Christian would point out that 666 is a numerology calculation of Emperor Nero’s name. Furthermore, he would point out that for decades contemporary Christians have been trying to assign 666 to some current figure, especially in political leadership. Ronald Wilson Reagan has six letters in each of his names, 666. Conora (as in the belief that emerged in 202O that the corona virus, mask wearing, and now vaccine taking are Signs of the Beast, yes, I read it on the Internet) has 6 letters in its name, and if you assign numbers of each letter, (A=1, C=3, N=14, O=15, R=18, 3+15+14+15+18+1 = 66) 6 and 66! Thus, the practice of looking for 666 keeps finding contemporary targets, erroneously. 666 is being taken out of context of the scriptures and historical times.
The literal Christians might concede that we others might have jumped-the-gun on assigning who is the Anti-Christ and what 666 means, but as in the movies, once the Rapture occurs, left behind Christians will know who that person is and what that number means. For Christians will not have that mark, but followers of the Beast will.
Three different assumptions lead to developing three different sets of facts.
So far the friends have been discussing the movies is rather heady ways. But, stories and movies are inherently emotional experiences. Sound tracks are designed to evoke certain feelings. We can think of music from Jaws, Star Wars, and Left Behind which bring caution to dread. We can think of different musical themes which offer hope.
The literary Christian talks about the flow of the emotions as the characters go about their home and work routines, families arguing and disappointing each other, a pilot flying a plane, a news report filming a report on agriculture in the desert… then the trauma of millions of people suddenly disappearing… the lament of non-end-times believing Christians realizing that they missed the prophecies thereby being left behind… the joy of confessing Jesus as Savior… the dread of seeing a world leader emerging and controlling political, economic, and agricultural processes… He would relate this back to now narratives use emotions to guid the story.
The contextual Christian talks about finding the movies gripping in the intensity of the emotions, but again missing the point that the movies are taking the scriptural references out of context.
The literal Christian talks about how exhilarated he feels that the message of the End Times as been presented in a format that people relate to today (movies). Few Christians, let alone unsaved masses, are going to read the Bible. For the thousands of chapters and verses, they are unlikely to find those that warn them about a thief in the night. He is thrilled.
Three different assumptions, sets of facts, emotional experiences of the same weekend. Who is right? Well, as a friend in high school said when we had such debates… “It’s up for interpretation”.
This discussion begs a question: which set of assumptions is true?
Literary, or Contextual, or Literal?
My conclusion is that the “or” should be replaced by “and”.
Literary, and Contextual, and Literal.
My reasoning is that each set of assumptions has it merits and omissions. The literary Christians recognizes that most storylines in western literature can be found in the thousands of stories illustrated in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures (including many which are exist outside the canon of the Bible). But, these are just stories, are they any more true that Greek drama, Ovid’s poems, or Shakespeare’s plays (which certainly have plenty of inaccurate passages, historically)?
The contextual Christian places scriptures in their historical place, offering rich appreciation when contemporary writings and a archaeological evidence help us understand how the writers of the texts lived. But, such academic understand is not lived experience, and rarely provide guidance for our daily lives and relationships.
The literal Christian accepts that words matter. Thus, when we read scripture, especially if we have access to discussion about what the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Green words meant, we can drive deeply into how the writers used words to guide understanding. But, as my essays have been discussing, when applied to strictly to contemporary events, one is easily misled into believing that current events and people are referred to by those words (I.e. QAnon, Oath Keepers, Sovereign Citizens movements, etc).
If these three friends just take their position, draw lines in the sand, and cross their arms, the weekend is likely to become contentious. But, if they share their positions, listening to each other, reflect on their areas of agreement, and possibly acknowledge the “and” in their discourse, they could have a robust conversation and acceptance of the complexity of life.
Image further, if they went beyond the single assumption that I have outlined here, and started acknowledging other assumptions, sets of facts and data, and range of emotions, they might be more verbose that I have been through this series of posts! We would have to save such rambunctious exchange for Pentecost rather than Lent.