A few days ago I received an email from a reader that posed a question and invited my response. With permission I’m reproducing a portion of the email. I’ll then offer a response below:
If I had to say what I have found most helpful about your work, it would be your insistence on the relevance of personal experience and the emotions in moral reasoning. (A paradigmatic example of what I am thinking of would be your descriptions of the physical hacking and bloodshed that would be involved in ANE genocide. Your posts on the subject are a large part of why I now read the conquest narratives differently than I used to.)
As you undoubtedly know, many in North American evangelicalism (the tradition I am from) are resistant to evidential value of responses (especially emotional responses) to experience.
So here’s my question: what passages would you recommend basing such a message–a message about the importance of carefully listening to the experiences of those whose experiences might challenge us–on? More generally, do you have any advice for addressing very Scripture-oriented crowds on this topic? (I guess that’s two questions!)
First off, I’m always heartened to hear that some of the 2000+ articles I’ve posted online have been of some use to somebody. I’m especially heartened to hear in this case that the positive influence extends to something near to my own heart: the role of emotion in reasoning. And the questioner is right to note that many evangelicals — and many others besides — exhibit a troubling skepticism toward the value of emotion in moral reasoning.
I have always sought to challenge that assumption by basing my own moral analysis on intuitive reflection rooted in richly detailed and moving narratives. Is it possible that God command a genocide? Before we rush to answer that question, let’s paint a detailed picture of what a genocide would look like and then let that content inform our subsequent reflections. Is it possible that God could command a person face capital punishment by being pelted to death with rocks? Again, let’s paint a detailed picture of what a stoning would look like and then let that content inform our subsequent reflections.
The other day when I was speaking in Louisville one of the attendees came up to me and said that he had heard me speak before. It was November, 2010 at the annual conference for the Evangelical Theological Society and I was giving a paper on biblical violence. He recalled that I had shared a story of a woman in our own day who had committed a heinous act to her child under the misbegotten belief that God had commanded it. What is more, he also remembered that I had grown emotional whilst relaying the narrative. Finally, he recalled that at that moment, the entire mood in the room changed as many people were led to consider a moral and theological issue from the reality of concrete reflection on real-life cases.
With that in mind, we can turn back to the evangelicals who are skeptical of the place of emotion in informing our moral intuitions and thus our reasoning generally. How might we begin to challenge their assumptions, and in particular to do so within the confines of a sermon?
I have no idea how one might construct a sermon to that end. But I can make some general observations on the way that story regularly serves within scripture by appealing to our emotions as a way to truth.
Consider, for example, the case of 2 Samuel 12, a famous incident in which Nathan the Prophet confronts David over his sin of committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband. Note how Nathan engages with David: he tells an emotional story about a cruel rich man who stole the sheep of a poor neighbor. Here is David’s response:
“5 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, ‘As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.'”
It is at this point that Nathan points his long, bony finger (as I envision it) at David and in his raspy prophet’s voice, he growls: “You are that man!”
In a moment David is confronted with the horror of his sin, the depth of his hypocrisy, and the breadth of his self-deception. His flashes of rage are now turned in on himself as David melts in guilt and shame.
There are many things one might draw from this story, but one undeniable fact (so it seems to me) is that the appeal to emotion through narrative provides new insights into our moral standing. Sometimes, as with Nathan’s story, the narrative still requires the storyteller to provide an application (you are that man!). But other times, bare reflection on an event is sufficient to offer data for further reflection (as in reflection on the nature of genocide or stoning).
The story of Nathan and David is a negative one. But let me now turn to a positive example, one that comes from perhaps the most beloved of Jesus’ parables: the story of the Prodigal Son. Countless generations have been moved to tears by the narrative, in particular the stunning image of a regal, middle eastern father raising his robes to run toward his beloved, wayward son. Could God really be like this? The key point is that the emotions that are stirred by this kind of storytelling do not merely “play on the emotions” and thereby obscure hard theological truths. Rather, they become the very means by which those truths are revealed to us in profound new ways.
Just as Jesus communicated powerfully through emotional stories that appeal to emotions, so we are called to do so as well. To illustrate the point, I’ve typed up three pages from Philip Yancey’s 1997 book What’s So Amazing About Grace? in which he offers a rich and provocative retelling of the story of the Prodigal Son. The story is meant to appeal to our emotions, but again, it does so not as a way of obscuring theological truth, but rather as a way of unveiling it. Here’s the parable:
A young girl grows up on a cherry orchard just above Traverse City, Michigan. Her parents, a bit old-fashioned, tend to overreact to her nose ring, the music she listens to, and the length of her skirts. They ground her a few times, and she seethes inside. ‘I hate you!’ she screams at her father when he knocks on the door of her room after an argument, and that night she acts on a plan she has mentally rehearsed scores of times. She runs away.
She has visited Detroit only once before, on a bus trip with her church youth group to watch the Tigers play. Because newspapers in Traverse City report in lurid detail the gangs, the drugs, and the violence in downtown Detroit, she concludes that is probably the last place her parents will look for her. California, maybe, or Florida, but not Detroit.
Her second day there she meets a man who drives the biggest car she’s ever seen. He offers her a ride, buys her lunch, arranges a place for her to stay. He gives her some pills that make her feel better than she’s ever felt before. She was right all along, she decides: her parents were keeping her from all the fun.
The good life continues for a month, two months, a year. The man with the big car—she calls him “Boss” – teaches her a few things that men like. Since she’s underage, men pay a premium for her. She lives in a penthouse, and orders room service whenever she wants. Occasionally she thinks about the folks back home, but their lives now seem so boring and provincial that she can hardly believe she grew up there.
She has a brief scare when she sees her picture printed on the back of a milk carton with the headline ‘Have you seen this child?’ By by now she has blond hair, and with all the makeup and body-piercing jewelery she wears, nobody would mistake her for a child. Besides, most of her friends are runaways, and nobody squeals in Detroit.
After a year the first sallow signs of illness appear and it amazes her how fast the boss turns mean. These days, we can’t mess around, he growls, and before she knows it she’s out on the street without a penny to her name. She still turns a couple of tricks a night, but they don’t pay much, and all the money goes to support her habit. When winter blows in she finds herself sleeping on metal grates outside the big department stores. ‘Sleeping’ is the wrong word—a teenage girl at night in downtown Detroit can never relax her guard. Dark bands circle her eyes. Her cough worsens.
One night as she lies awake listening for footsteps, all of a sudden everything about her life looks different. She no longer feels like a woman of the world. She feels like a little girl, lost in a cold and frightening city. She begins to whimper. Her pockets are empty and she’s hungry. She needs a fix. She pulls her legs tight underneath her and shivers under the newspapers she’s piled atop her coat. Something jolts a synapse of memory and a single image fills her mind: of May in Traverse City, when a million cherry trees bloom at once, with her golden retriever dashing through the rows and rows of blossomy trees in chase of a tennis ball.
God, why did I leave, she says to herself, and pain stabs at her heart. My dog back home eats better than I do now. She’s sobbing, and she knows in a flash that more than anything else in the world she wants to go home.
Three straight phone calls, three straight connections with the answering machine. She hangs up without leaving a message the first two times, but the third time she says, ‘Dad, Mom, it’s me. I was wondering about maybe coming home. I’m catching a bus up your way, and it’ll get there about midnight tomorrow. If you’re not there, well, I guess I’ll just stay on the bus until it hits Canada.’
It takes about seven hours for a bus to make all the stops between Detroit and Traverse City, and during that time she realizes the flaws in her plan. What if her parents are out of town and miss the message? Shouldn’t she have waited another day or so until she could talk to them/ And even if they are home, they probably wrote her off as dead long ago. She should have given them some time to overcome the shock.
Her thoughts bounce back and forth between these worries and the speech she is preparing for her father. ‘Dad, I’m sorry. I know I was wrong. It’s not your fault; it’s all mine. Dad, can you forgive me?’ She says the words over and over, her throat tightening even as she rehearses them. She hasn’t apologized to anyone in years.
The bus has been driving with lights on since Bay City. Tiny snowflakes hit the pavement rubbed worn by thousands of tires and the asphalt streams. She’s forgotten how dark it gets at night out here. A deer darts across the road and the bus swerves. Every so often, a billboard. A sing posting the mileage to Traverse City. Oh, God.
When the bus finally rolls into the station, its air brakes hissing in protest, the driver announces in a crackly voice over the microphone, ‘Fifteen minutes, folks. That’s all we have here.’ Fifteen minutes to decide her life. She checks herself in a compact mirror, smooths her hair, and licks the lipstick off her teeth. She looks at the tobacco stains on her fingertips, and wonders if her parents will notice. If they’re there.
She walks into the terminal not knowing what to expect. Not one of the thousand scenes that have played out in her mind prepare her for what she sees. There, in the concrete-walls-and-plastic-chairs bus terminal in Traverse City, Michigan, stands a group of forty brothers and sisters and great-aunts and uncles and cousins and a grandmother and great-grandmother to boot. They’re all wearing goofy party hats and blowing noise-makers, and taped across the entire wall of the terminal is a computer-generated banner that reads ‘Welcome home!’
Out of the crowd of well-wishers breaks her dad. She stares out through the tears quivering in her eyes like hot mercury and begins the memorized speech, ‘Dad, I’m sorry. I know…’
He interrupts her. ‘Hush, child. We’ve got no time for that. No time for apologies. You’ll be late for the party. A banquet’s waiting for you at home.”(49-51)
To be honest, I’ve never met a Christian who denied that the appeal to emotions in stories like this can be a powerful means to unveil truth. But if we can appeal to emotions here to provide insights into profound truth, then presumably it is possible to do so in other circumstances as well. And that could even include instances that would provide new content which might force us to reexamine some traditional readings of popular biblical passages.