A reader called recently to complain, not so much about a particular article, but about a certain kind of article. The latest example was Arthur Droge’s “Did Paul Commit Suicide?” BR 05:06. (For letters on this article, see Readers Reply) But that wasn’t the only one. Another was “Can Scholars Take the Virgin Birth Seriously?” BR 04:05, by J. Edward Barrett. A third—this person read the magazine carefully and remembered it well—was Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s “What Really Happened at the Transfiguration?” BR 03:03.
These articles—and perhaps some others—were, the reader said, “off-the-wall.” He suggested we printed them just to provoke people, to irritate and rile them.
When we get calls complaining about one thing or another, we usually listen, chat a bit and then ask the caller to give his or her views to us in a letter that we will consider printing in Readers Reply. We do, after all, have a pretty open column of readers’ letters where we share with other readers a representative sample of the kinds of letters we get—some praising us, some arguing, some offering new insights or asking questions and some critical and even condemning.
We could easily write editorial responses to the complaining and condemning letters— perhaps showing how smart we are or how right we are. But we rarely, if ever, do this. Our readers are entitled to their say without comments from us. Then other readers can make up their own minds (they’re plenty smart) whether they agree or disagree, whether we’re right or wrong, whether we deserve the criticism or not. Besides, to respond too often to readers’ letters would appear defensive.
Even though the caller who complained about the three articles I mentioned didn’t follow up with a letter, and even though we, usually let these complaints speak for themselves, in this case I would like to respond, even at the risk of appearing defensive.
In short, we print articles like these to make you think. Whether or not you agree with them is unimportant to us, although obviously, it is important to you—our readers. Our purpose is not to convince our readers that we have the way of confronting the biblical text. Our aim is to present responsible scholarship to highly thoughtful people who then make up their own minds about what they wish to agree and to disagree with. By wrestling with articles like these, our readers decide how—in what meaningful way—they will relate to the Bible and its riches. This is a process that does not necessarily involve agreement with the author’s position. But it does require the reader to decide—if that’s the conclusion—why the author is wrong—or, at least wrong for that particular reader. (All our readers don’t need to come to the same conclusion.)
More than 30 years ago, in a class at Harvard Law School, I listened to a professor telling us, “It doesn’t matter who you decide deserves to win this case, the plaintiff or the defendant. What matters is whether you see the issues.” That’s a little like the case here: It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree, it’s how you grapple with the issues. You will come out stronger, regardless of how you decide, if you grapple with the issues. And your faith will not be diminished—it may even be strengthened—by the struggle. But there is even more to It than this. You will learn a tremendous amount from articles even if you disagree with them. Take Arthur Droge’s article on the possibility Paul committed suicide. Did you ever stop to think about the fact that the Bible doesn’t tell us how Paul died? What a contrast Jesus! You’ll never forget it now. From this article you also learned a lot about how the ancients viewed suicide and how this changed in St. Augustine’s time. You may even have been stimulated to think about your own attitude—or contemporary attitudes—toward suicide. (Did you know before you read this article that neither the Hebrew Bible nor New Testament explicitly prohibits suicide?) And then there was Droge’s interesting discussion of cases of suicide described in Bible. And didn’t you learn more about Paul, his mindset and what he endured in his missionary work, as you considered with author the possibility that Paul ended his own life? This is just a small part of what there is to learn from this fascinating article—even if you conclude (as I did) that Paul didn’t commit suicide.
In this particular case, the author himself did not conclude that Paul committed suicide. He said it was just as possible that he did as that he did not. Which, in a way, is saying what I have been saying. It is not important what we conclude as it is confront the text, to grapple with it in new ways, to dig ever deeper into its mysteries. It is the process that is most important, a process that engages us and enriches us, and, the end, strengthens our faith, regardless what that faith is.
A reader called recently to complain, not so much about a particular article, but about a certain kind of article. The latest example was Arthur Droge’s “Did Paul Commit Suicide?” BR 05:06. (For letters on this article, see Readers Reply) But that wasn’t the only one. Another was “Can Scholars Take the Virgin Birth Seriously?” BR 04:05, by J. Edward Barrett. A third—this person read the magazine carefully and remembered it well—was Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s “What Really Happened at the Transfiguration?” BR 03:03. These articles—and perhaps some others—were, the reader said, “off-the-wall.” He suggested we printed them just to provoke […]