I make my living interpreting. As a pastor, one of my main responsibilities is to study the Bible and help people understand how to apply it to our lives. The most important part of that process is understanding the intent of the original author. So the question of intent is a part of my everyday life. It would be irresponsible and selfish of me to insert my own opinions and feelings into a sermon and represent them as Biblical fact. Every responsible pastor works hard to ensure that what is taught from God’s platform on a given Sunday is God’s opinion, faithful to the intent of the Bible’s author.
The importance of intent does not only weigh on pastors, though. Whether we know it or not, all of us wrestle with the deep and sometimes confusing process of interpretation. Here are two examples that have forced their way into our lives: the debate on gun control and the debate on the national anthem. My purpose is not to weigh in on either issue. There are literally millions of voices sharing their opinions on all sides right now. The reason I decided to weigh in is that I see that the main, most important tool in a pastor’s toolkit can (and should) be used in both conversations, and probably others as well. So I present to you a parable…
Once there was a wealthy bachelor. He had everything that life could offer, except for love. Don’t get me wrong, he received plenty of attention from would-be lovers. But the chemistry was just never right. Except once.
Linda was wonderful. Her laugh was sublime. Her wit was quick, yet gentle. She loved her nieces and nephews, and she seemed to sincerely care for the wealthy bachelor for his own sake, not his money. They dated for several months and things seemed to be going perfectly, until they had a tragic misunderstanding.
It was a stormy evening, and the power was out in the entire neighborhood where the bachelor lived. The fire was lit in the fireplace, and several candles burned on tables around his richly adorned living room. He had been planning a wedding proposal for Linda and was busy with the details, at the same time trying to rebuff a previous romantic interest. But there was a problem: she wouldn’t take the hint, despite a face-to-face conversation, and multiple phone calls and text messages. So in frustration and desperation, the bachelor crafted a cutting message and shot it to her in a text: “We’re through. There is someone else now. Don’t try to contact me again. It’s over. Do you understand? OVER. Whatever we had was not real and there will never be anything between us again.”
Satisfied that the unpleasant task was done and he could now focus on the real love of his life, the bachelor set his phone down and gazed into space for a moment. Closure. Peace. It was over.
Then his phone vibrated. What’s this? How could she have misinterpreted his message? But no…it wasn’t the other woman, it was Linda. He had somehow missed a phone call from her and was now listening to a voicemail…she was clearly upset, her voice quavering, breath raspy. “I don’t know where we went wrong. I didn’t realize you were seeing someone else…I’m so embarrassed…”
The blood drained from his face as the truth of his error washed over the bachelor. He had sent his pointed text message to Linda instead of the other woman! He tried to call Linda, but his battery was now dead, and the storm had knocked out his landline! Over the next hours, our tragic lovers tried to reconnect and straighten things out, but misunderstanding upon misunderstanding created an ever-higher barrier between them. By the next morning there was no hope for repair. They had both lost.
Months went by, and the bachelor suffered with regret. Nothing seemed to have the power to alleviate the creeping depression. Eventually, he found himself writing a suicide note which was not entirely coherent. Later, police and lawyers struggled to know how to handle his estate. He had no living relatives, and the only personal connection that he mentioned was cryptic and vague: the note ended like this: “I will always love her.”
Of course, neither Linda nor the woman who was supposed to be dumped could be certain to whom the note referred. Each of them would have stood to inherit a great fortune, but the intent of the bachelor was unclear. Both would benefit from being the intended beneficiary, but in a probate court, their opinions would mean nothing without corroborating evidence. Facts are more important than feelings.
Which brings me to the point: intent is everything. This is a much needed message in the current media atmosphere. From the largest news outlets to the most obscure tweets, we are seeing the words of public figures dissected, twisted and misrepresented like no other time. Why? We like straw-men. We want to believe the worst about our enemies. We are often angry, and seeking further justification for our anger. It is inconvenient to practice objectivity, because it means that we have to question our presuppositions. But it is so important.
Here’s an exercise that can quickly illustrate the power of a fallacious straw-man argument: google the name of the political candidate that you didn’t vote for in the last election. Read the first article or two and ask yourself the following: Is the person who is the subject of the article quoted directly? Is the source of the quote given? Is there a link to a full transcript of what they said? If the answer to any or all of those questions is “no”, you are probably dealing with a straw man article. BUT…its probably tempting to accept it at face value, because you didn’t like that candidate. What happens when you google the other candidate? Does the media treat them with the same level of scrutiny? You see, the truly objective media consumer will evaluate each article with the same level of skepticism, whether they like the subject of the article or not. Don’t give any media outlet the benefit of the doubt! Work hard to find out what the subject of the article INTENDED to communicate. Why? Because you would want the same treatment if it was you being quoted.
When we proffer or consume a straw-man argument, what we are saying is “I don’t really care what you meant. What I say you meant is terrible.” What we should be saying to one another is “What did you mean when you said, ‘x, y, z’?”.
How does this question change things in the gun-control debate? Or the national anthem at NFL games? It’s your job to find out. And don’t be afraid to go back to the song-writer of the national anthem or the folks who drafted the 2nd Amendment. Pastors go back way further than that every single Sunday.