Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity

"Oh, hey," I replied as I rubbed my eyes and wondered why she was in my dorm room so early.
"Okay, so I really think that God wants you to lend me your car so that I can get to church this morning."
"Um....oh. I'm sorry, but I can't. It's not my car. It's my mom's and she doesn't want anyone else to drive it. I'm really sorry."

In hindsight, I guess I could have gotten up and given her a ride. At the time, I was simply exhausted and wanted to go back to sleep. But that's really not the point.  This memory recently resurfaced due to something my sister said the other day. My sister didn't stumble into the world of American Evangelical Culture like I did. She was also raised Lutheran, went to a public liberal arts college after high school, traveled the world exploring both personal and geographical horizons, and is still a Lutheran today. I don't remember exactly why it came up, but we were driving in the car discussing how people give direct credit to God for various happy or sad events saying "The Lord did this" or "The Lord caused that." And she turned to me and said, "I think that's taking the Lord's name in vain too." I had never thought of it that way, but I really think she has a point.

What does it mean to take the Lord's name in vain? Is it as simple as the times people exclaim "Jesus Christ!" or "God dammit!" when they are annoyed, frustrated, or hurt? As I thought about it, I realized that I'm not sure that type of vocabulary would have existed at the time that the 10 commandments were written. Jesus Christ wasn't even close to being born at the time this was written and the context of the command and its original language gives no indication that this was the intended purpose of such a command.

Before I explain what I mean, I want to make one thing perfectly clear. This post is not an endorsement of the ten commandments as the ultimate measure of Christian behavior. Although they provide some good guidelines, I think that is a problematic interpretation of the text, as few modern Christians would give such credence to the rest of the Old Testament Jewish laws and in his teachings Jesus gave no indication that we would be bound to those ten items although we could lose the others. That being said, since American Evangelical Culture has held on to the ten commandments so tightly, to the point of fighting for their presence at our courthouses, it's worth looking at the way they've been interpreted and distorted.

In the story I shared above, she didn't come into my room and say "I'm sorry, but I can't find a ride to church this morning and I was really looking forward to going. Can you help me out?" Instead, she immediately invoked God's will, I can only assume thinking that it would cause me to feel more compelled to help her out.  I heard things like that spoken countless times at Conservative Christian College. I know of a guy who was told by a girl in his church that "Jesus didn't want her to be friends with him anymore."  "God's will" was a common reason given for boyfriends and girlfriends to break up with one another. A friend once proudly proclaimed to me that "God gave her a laptop." People would often pepper their advice to others with phrases such as "God would want you to..." or "It's God's will for you to..." God's name seemed to be invoked for a lot of minor or personal agenda driven items. Which brings me back to my point...

The Old Testament wasn't written to people in a culture where 70+% of others shared their core theological beliefs. There were countless gods of other cultures that were invoked daily and given credit for demanding/causing many circumstances. Many have argued that the Hebrew text had to do with the manner in which we invoke the presence of God. The original word is one that speaks of desolation, vanity, and worthlessness. Are we using the name and presence of God in a way that is vain or devalues His worth? Do we tend to invoke the name of God flippantly or carelessly, assuming that He's on board with anything we're behind? Using "God's will" may be a quick way to save face and avoid arguments when discussing difficult matters with other Christians, but if they manner in which it is used doesn't accurately reflect His character, I would argue that you are still using it in vain. On that point, I think my sister was right. I'm not trying to tell you how you should or should not interpret the Bible. You need to sort through that for yourself. I just think that it is ridiculous how often Christians criticize others for saying things like "God dammit," yet invoke the will/intervention of God in situations where it really doesn't seem appropriate. Which is more vain?

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