The gathering in Atlanta was the second “One project” gathering I attended, the first being in Seattle a few years back, which left me with an overall good impression. I like the idea (and practice) of being seated around the table and having time to process the information received during presentations.
Hearing the Voice of the Attendees
This is something I was especially looking forward to as I prepared for my trip to Atlanta, because I generally like to hear what people think on any given issue. I find that a multiplicity of thoughts helps bring out the complexity of an issue, and unearthing some of this complexity is refreshing and even reassuring, as it gives me a more holistic, and therefore a deeper understanding of any topic.
The One project gathering is the only conference I have participated in (and I have attended a variety of conferences over the past few years) where roundtable discussion is on the schedule. More specifically, after every two short presentations, the participants are given time to talk with each other. Three to five questions are provided for each presentation, and one person leads the discussion.
This approach also demonstrates a certain kind of respect for the audience, in the sense that they are given a voice: everyone has the chance to speak. It is a format I believe more conferences should adopt. Personally, I would use this approach even for Sabbath morning sermons.
Carrying the Protest Forward
One other aspect I was particularly looking forward to was the theme of the gathering—Sola Scriptura. I have been at the Seminary long enough (first in the MDiv program, and now in the PhD program), and have heard and read enough on the topic of Sola Scriptura, to know that it can be fairly complex.
In addition, one of my personal research interests is hermeneutics—often defined as “the art and science of understanding”—and more specifically biblical hermeneutics (how we understand and interpret Scripture). Evidently, Sola Scriptura is relevant to this. Thus, I was very interested to see what areas a conference on this subject would explore.
To my surprise, the topic wasn’t addressed in any meaningful way by the presenters. I gathered by the end that it was entitled Sola Scriptura because of the 500-years anniversary of the Reformation. While I can see the connection, I don’t think the title reflected the content. This was somewhat disappointing, as my expectations of digging deeper into this topic weren’t met. What I did notice, however, is that most speakers (perhaps all, to some degree) articulated a protest in their presentations.
Thus, it seems to me that instead of discussing Luther or the principle Sola Scriptura (generally speaking; some did touch on either of these), they followed Luther’s example by addressing issues close to their heart—issues our church and the Christian church at large is facing. I did appreciate this, and especially appreciated their nerve to speak up about relevant issues, even if they were somewhat controversial.
I would add here, too, that I personally think our church needs more safe spaces where people can discuss different opinions. The One project gatherings have been intentional and, to some extent, successful in offering this space. This does not mean that everything is fair game, or that we should accept and integrate any idea presented. However, if we are to grow, seek a deeper understanding, and discover new insights, how can this happen unless there is a safe space where we can examine new and divisive ideas?
That being said, a safe space, in my opinion, does not imply a space which doesn’t allow for critique; such an approach would also hinder us from further understanding. We need to listen, but listen critically, and always evaluate what we hear. Therefore, having expressed my overall appreciation for the format, in the next paragraphs, I will offer my evaluation of the approach and the content presented at The One project in Atlanta.
Each presentation title included a Bible passage, and if you have read articles one and two in this series, you have a pretty good picture of the topics addressed. I believe the idea behind adding Bible verses to the title was to suggest that the presentation was based on that particular passage of Scripture–at least that is how I understood it. Here I have a little more to say.
To help you understand where I am coming from in my critique, I will share briefly that I think there are two broad and significant factors to consider in biblical interpretation: (1) right versus wrong, and (2) depth. What I mean by (1) is that some ways of interpreting the Bible are right or wrong. This is a rather broad category, and it involves not only the principles of interpretation, but also the presuppositions with which the reader approaches the text.
A simple and clear example is as follows: If I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God—that it has a dual authorship (God and men), I understand it very differently than if I think the Bible is merely a human product. This is an example or right versus wrong, or, otherwise put, of understanding that leads to salvation as opposed to understanding that leads to confusion.
As for (2), within a right way of interpreting Scripture, there are layers of depth. The more we immerse ourselves in Scripture, the more time we spend with the Bible open, the more we rely on the Holy Spirit to illuminate us, and research what specialists have said, the more deeply we understand a passage and its relevance for us.
It has been my experience, and it is my conviction, that studying the grammar of the text, investigating the literary aspects (whichever genera it falls into), understanding the immediate context, and learning a few things about how the original languages affect the interpretation, can help me understand the passage with greater depth.
No person, however educated, can do all of this by herself or himself. That is why, in addition to spending time in prayer and personal study of the Scripture, I find it helpful to read commentaries, dictionaries, and other resources where experts have spent considerable portions of their lives deeply studying particular passages or topics. This isn’t easy work, but the results are definitely worth it. All of this, of course, assumes that the individual has access to such resources.
Going back to my reflections on this gathering, it was my impression that some speakers put more effort into studying the biblical text and related resources than others. This became clear to me when, after one presentation, we were supposed to discuss a question about the text. However, the group wasn’t able to effectively converse on it, because it hadn’t really been brought up in the presentation. It felt as if we were just beginning to understand the text. As a result (given the time limitations), even in the discussion, we were only able to briefly brush over the biblical passage.
Other speakers dwelt more on the biblical text, and some analyzed it more in-depth than others. Personally, I think much more could be said on most of the passages selected, and thus on the topics addressed. Of course, one must choose an emphasis, and a text cannot be truly exhausted in twenty minutes. For the most part, my impression was that a number of presentations remained at a rather superficial level.
Does this mean that the ideas presented were wrong? Not necessarily. But neither were they necessarily right, or biblical. What I mean by this is that merely quoting a text does not imply one understands it. This is the risk of proof-texting—a trap into which both conservatives and liberals fall (if I may use these broad categories). I need to know whether you understand the passage in its context before I can agree with your interpretation of it.
A Lack of Context
On this note, I was not persuaded by all the speakers that they truly understood (or had even analyzed) the context of the passages they used in their presentations. The clearest example is Chris Oberg’s presentation, in which she discussed Matthew 19:12. Chris briefly referenced the surrounding context, stating that it has to do with relationships. This is evident if one merely looks at the subtitles or scans the verses. But what does this context have to say about relationships, and how does this impact one’s understanding of verse 12?
If I understood the speaker correctly, the talk advocated for an acceptance that bodies are complex (and have always been), that the Bible says very little about healthy heterosexual sex, and that a view that sex is to be saved for the marriage bed is too narrow. The implication of her presentation would be that people who are not heterosexual have no biblical impediment to expressing themselves sexually as it feels natural to them.
Again, while this was not clearly stated, it appeared to be the direction suggested. Sure, Matthew does speak about three categories of eunuchs. However, he doesn’t address how they are to express their sexuality. In other words, it wasn’t evident at all that Matthew 19:12 has anything to do with whether or not God condones non-heterosexual sexual relationships, again, if that is what the speaker implied.
If the presentation was persuasive, it could have only been so for those who have already accepted that homosexual relationships are not sinful. Generally speaking, I found the line of argument fairly loose and inconclusive based on the analysis provided.
In Search of Depth
Another personal grief is that a number of speakers gave much more time to more personal stories than an analysis of the text. I would argue that the choice doesn’t need to be an either/or decision. Testimonies are great, but the Bible is greater. Sadly, this approach that emphasizes personal stories over careful study is not that rare within the Adventist church. Many sermons follow this format, and my grief extends to that fact as well.
On this note, I generally agree with Andy Nash, who tried to explain the value of inductive, verse-by-verse Bible study. I tend to think that when one sees the depth and beauty the Bible can offer, she or he will simply wish to bring that depth to their listeners. We cannot lead the audience where we haven’t been. This is often stated in reference to the speaker’s spiritual journey, but I would argue that the same is true about the speaker’s understanding of the text itself.
If I can protest something, too, it is this: that we become satisfied with crumbs when feasts are available to us. Sure, crumbs can nourish a soul, and a famished soul will find in these crumbs a feast. Yet I believe we need to aim for the most, not the least. And it is here where The One project has not persuaded me that they’ve aimed for the most. Still, the fact that people who have attended it have found it greatly nourishing tells me just how hungry people are to learn about God–a God who is a personal Savior.
To conclude my reflection, I will state that I have generally appreciated the focus on Christ; The One project certainly does uplift Jesus, as its motto—Jesus. All.—suggests. I have also appreciated the emphasis on social and personal issues, and the attempt to address these topics from a biblical perspective. Our church doesn’t speak and act enough on such matters.
The Gospel and the love of Christ in action will create a church that makes a difference in the society, stands up to injustice, protects the vulnerable, and educates people into healthy relationships centered on Christ and others. Again, the overall gist of the gathering followed this direction.
Lastly, creativity, simplicity, and safe fellowship are great values to adopt as we serve searching souls. With the added depth that comes from more thorough research, and with a more careful analysis of the text in its immediate context and the overall biblical context, these values have the potential to truly nourish people and bring them closer to the saving Truth.
Since The One project will be closing down soon, this reflection is somewhat irrelevant with regards to the direction of future gatherings. However, a critical look at The One project can help us consider ways in which we can offer higher quality service to our church—something we should always strive to achieve in one form or another.