The Philosopher

The prison bible study was about to start. But I was hanging back, waiting on the Philosopher.

The Philosopher is new to the study. He's really smart in many ways. Hence the nickname he's been given by his fellow inmates. They call him the Philosopher.

But the Philosopher is also socially challenged. To my eye he as a lot of Asperger-like symptoms. These social skills issues make the Philosopher difficult to deal with in the class. The Philosopher has a tendency to go on long theological, doctrinal or biblical disquisitions that hold the floor for too long. But the Philosopher has trouble reading the non-verbals of the class as well as mine. He doesn't know when to stop so I have to awkwardly interject to get the class moving forward again.

But that's not why I'm hanging back this evening. I don't mind the Philosopher being long-winded. I'm a college professor. I'm an expert in being long-winded. So I get it.

I'm hanging back because last week the Philosopher accosted my co-teacher Herb. He accused Herb of "blasphemy" and asserted that Herb had "blood on his hands."

To be clear, there are lots of disagreements in the bible study. But this was extreme. It's going to be hard to have a good class discussion going forward if accusations of blasphemy are being leveled. So I need to check in with the Philosopher.

Here's the hilarious thing. You might be wondering what Herb was teaching that provoked the charge of blood-soaked blasphemy. It was this: Max Lucado.

That's right. Max Lucado. That damned heretic.

Herb was leading a discussion about Max Lucado's recent video series on grace. And why, you might ask, did the Philosopher find grace to be blasphemous?

Well, the Philosopher is a bit of a legalist. Consequently, the doctrine of grace is a bit scandalous. It's blasphemy. Thus Herb is leading souls to perdition for preaching (via DVD) the doctrine. Hence the "blood soaked hands" accusation.

The Philosopher was the last one to get to the study. He handed in his lay in (the slip of paper given by the chaplain's office granting permission to go the study) to the guards who began to pat him down.

But there's something stuffed in the Philosopher's sock. That's a problem which gets the attention of the guards. Their mood turns grim. You're not supposed to have things stuffed in your socks.

Is it contraband? A weapon?

Turns out it's a bible. One of those tiny, pocket-sized King James Version bibles.

The Philosopher was now asked to stand with this hands against the wall for a more thorough pat down.

The Philosopher has, it is discovered, about five small bibles stuffed all over his person.

One of the guards remarks, "I patted this guy down last week and he had like eight bibles on him."

The pat down concludes. I reflect. I'm about to try to have a biblical conversation about grace and legalism with a guy who carries bibles stuffed in his socks and whose nickname is "the Philosopher."

But I was raised in the Churches of Christ. So I'm pretty fearless when it comes to debating the bible. I don't care if you carry eight bibles on your person. That doesn't intimidate me. I was captain of my Bible Bowl team. I'm a member of the Churches of Christ, where children know more about the bible than N.T. Wright.

But in truth, I really don't want to debate the bible with the Philosopher. All I really want to say is that we don't mind disagreements in the study. Disagree all you want. But we do need to tone down the rhetoric. If you disagree with someone, fine, but you can't call them blasphemers and say that they have blood on their hands.

But here's the problem. The Philosopher feels compelled to say these things because, in his words, "my Father told me to say that." "My Father," of course, is God. The Philosopher is communicating directly with God, sharing God's words with us.

Probing into this, as we talk, the Philosopher reveals to me that he's sort of like the apostle Paul, getting visions directly from God.

I realize as the discussion goes on that this is getting beyond a biblical discussion and that I am now bumping into something more psychiatric. How do you have a disagreement with someone speaking directly for God?

I work to keep the discussion biblical and point out that the apostle Paul, despite the revelations he received from God, once worried that he might have been misinterpreting those visions, that he might have been "running in vain." Consequently, Paul sought out other mature followers of Jesus--Peter, John and James--to check out his gospel with them. I have the Philosopher turn (in one of his five bibles) to Galatians 1 to read about Paul's worry and his actions.

This story is new to the Philosopher. Or, at the very least, this story never registered in this particular way. Paul--the apostolic model for the Philosopher--needed other Christians to check and sign-off on his gospel. Truth required communal discernment.

We can't, I cautioned the Philosopher, be a lone wolf. Not even Paul.

That, at least, was the point I tried to bring home. I wasn't totally successful. But I gave the Philosopher pause. He became more thoughtful. Reflective. You could see the wheels turning.

The great apostle Paul once worried that he might have been wrong.

It's a sobering thought.

But a perfect thought, in my estimation, to start off a bible study.

Especially for Christians who like to carry lots of bibles.

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7 thoughts on “The Philosopher”

  1. The flip side of the enlightenment and wonder of having the scriptures at our finger tips, is how it can fill us with a "purpose" that is not conducive to a healthy relationship with God and one another. To put it plainly, the Bible has been clutched and wielded as a hammer by those who have felt powerless in all other aspects of their lives. Many who have a minimal education, an average job, and basically no voice in the community find the Bible and their "knowledge" of it as the only power they will ever know.

    With that said, the challenge falls on those of us who have fought, scratched, clawed, only to end up bleeding and crawling through such an existence ourselves, to find some way to help them let go of the power treasure they think they find in the Bible without causing them to feel they are losing their sole reason for existence.

    Great point regarding the apostle Paul. The human element in the Bible is often missed; even intentionally ignored. But if we can somehow, with patience, get the point across to others that the world of the Bible was just as humanly imperfect as the one we find ourselves in, then maybe most of us will find the humility that will tear down a few walls and help those who do not trust the arrogance of religion take a little time to listen.

  2. I, too, have never read Galatians with that viewpoint. Interesting.

    And it dovetails with Paul's instructions to the Corinthians:

    HCSB 1 Cor 14:29 Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should evaluate.

  3. I agree that the human element in the bible is amazing!. Its funny this point about paul checking his gospel - when i read that passage it seems paul is doing the checking of the others gospels (not checking his own!!!!!!) - Paul is always very over confident in his tine and often uses the credentials: 'i am hearing straight from God' in his letters - i think its once of his flaws - in Gal 2:4 he lable his opposers as 'false' which is incredible manipulative! Then again when correcting peter - he uses reason- Gal 2: 11-15 Paul was a great guy definate jesus follower - but lets teach from his mistakes rather than listening always to his sometimes great but poorely/humanly executed points! The bible is rich with information about how humans respond both to God and his phrophets and to Jesus's kingdom of God message. That is the ephasis, there is much less information about Jesus and God in the bible than human response to God. Gods message is short and simple as jesus explained ( love god love neighbour)- however humans make a mess of it and have complicated hearts. Anyhow great artilce funny i agree with it all - avoid lone wolfs - and strive for peace - but have the opposite takeaway from pauls way of life!

  4. Richard, what's most beautiful to me about this story is the way your response is grounded in love: "toning down the rhetoric," being aware of psychiatric issues, not needing to be right. That whether or not you wind up "totally successful," you can still give thanks for the presence of doubt. God bless you for your gentleness, your quick mind, your knowledge of Scripture and your open heart.

  5. I have wrestled with my conscience for several years now about what I am hearing in "The Church" that seems to be pushing me out the door. I thought it was possibly "burnout". The article here and your article about "Rethinking unconditional Love" has really brought some clarity to me. In one corner of this "Main Event Match" is the free world Baptist Church" of which I grew up in and have been active in for the last 16 years. In the other corner is the Texas Prison system where I have been a "Religious" volunteer for now on 7 years. I went into the prison to take the Love of Jesus to some poor forgotten souls. What I found very quickly was a "Pristine" Christian taught by the Holy Spirit, void of the "Church Speak", a raw, unbridled passion(even that sounds "Churchy"). I feel like I am left with this Choice: Listening to the canned rehearsed interpretation of the interpretation of the word from a well read, well meaning Theologian or a "Fresh from the Garden" conversation with a brother who doesn't know "mission" from "ministry"?

  6. Thank you for sharing this, professor. I appreciate your approach and will adopt it as I encounter the "prophets" around me.

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