Monday, February 24, 2014

Putting Quotes into Perspective

Lots of people love quotes.

We like to know what famous people say.  We want to know things historical leaders we admire have said.  Quotes from luminaries can help affirm what we already believe, or put a commonly-shared experience into perspective.  A well-turned phrase can become famous in its own right, while the more obscure a quote may be, or the person who first spoke it, the smarter we sound when we repeat them.

Then, too, an expression can come to mean something else entirely after its original context is forgotten.  Or sometimes, we find out years later that a quote we've attributed to somebody actually belongs to somebody else.  Quotes usually derive a substantial amount of their meaning and credibility based upon the character of the person to whom they're attributed.  Political pundits in particular shamelessly mine the dustbins of yesteryear for one-liners from favored politicians that can be recycled for an air of respectable endorsement in our present-day debates.  Indeed, the reason why lots of people love quotes is because the best quotes speak as much about their source as they do their topic.

Yet, in our soundbite-driven world, it's easy to forget that even the smartest, wisest, and most moral of us are still fallible human beings.  Famous quotes may be poetic, or funny, or inspirational, but no matter how true they may be, they're rarely factoids upon which, for example, a legal case can be argued, or a sinner can base their eternal salvation.

If you spend a lot of time in the company of churchified Christians, like I do - since I am one myself - you'll know that lots of us have our favorite preachers and religious personalities, and many of us can rattle off famous religious quotes as quickly as we can recite scripture verses.  Attending a Presbyterian church for as long as I have, I've become especially acquainted with quotes from one of Protestantism's founding fathers, the inimitable reformer, Martin Luther.  Aside from being a pivotal figure within the history of world religions, Luther was highly opinionated, which helps explain his radical chutzpah.  He was also a fairly active drinker, which fueled a loquaciousness that was already uninhibited as a result of his strongly-held beliefs.  What resulted was a robust catalog of quotes by Luther that range from the brilliant to the borderline of profanity - sometimes in the same quote!

He scolded, insulted, marveled, taught, and ruminated with a vigor and a colorful vocabulary that may have been polarizing in his day, but would be downright scandalous today.  Indeed, I suspect that the main reason why some of Luther's less scholarly quotes are as popular as they are today among evangelicals is because they give us the opportunity to say things and use words that, in any other context, we'd feel compelled to ask God's forgiveness for using.

Obviously, the thing to remember with quotes by famous theologians is that everything they say that isn't scripture... isn't scripture.  Whether it's Martin Luther or John Calvin or Billy Graham, no expert on theology can add anything to what God has already said and taught in His holy Word, the Bible.  Theoretically, of course, we know that, but in our culture, where celebrity is worshiped and famous people are expected to say profound things, even well-known and broadly-marketed theologians are sought-out for their personalized soundbites.

And with Martin Luther, about whom so much has been written, revised, chronicled, researched, argued, pontificated, venerated, replicated, and misunderstood, the chances of error when it comes to attributing even famous quotes to him are manifold.

Justin Taylor, an editor for a Christian publishing house, recently posted a list of six rather popular sayings attributed to Luther that experts now virtually are convinced aren't his after all.  I've heard numbers 1, 4, and 6 on this list; with which ones are you familiar?  Because you don't need to be anymore:
  1. If I believed the world were to end tomorrow, I would still plant a tree today.
  2. The maid who sweeps her kitchen is doing the will of God just as much as the monk who prays—not because she may sing a Christian hymn as she sweeps but because God loves clean floors.  The Christian shoemaker does his Christian duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.
  3. If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Him. Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.
  4. I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.
  5. Justification is the article by which the church stands and falls.
  6. Here I stand; I can do no other.

I was hoping to see a couple of others on the list, since they're used by some Christians to justify doing things with which I disagree.  For example, Luther's quotes about sin get bandied about as proof that if somebody as important to Christianity as Luther can be free to willfully sin, so can we: 

"Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all." 

Huh?  A little bit of sin spites the Devil?  Where's that in scripture?  We're defeated if we try too hard not to sin at all?  Again, where is Luther's proof text for that audacious claim?  This isn't simply extra-Biblical, it's blatant falsehood, isn't it?

And when it comes to our modern observance of Halloween - celebrated by many evangelicals, which I simply find bizarre - there's his quote about jeering Satan upon which they rely for approval:

"The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

Which, again, is a quote that is totally bereft of scriptural support, but it sure sounds logical, and even fun.  So since Luther said it, it has to be right.  Right?

Okay, so maybe evangelicals feel justified in using Martin Luther quotes as their justification for doing things they probably would go ahead and do anyway because we know that Luther wasn't intentionally saying things he expected his listeners to add as an appendix to their Bibles.

He said as much about his own infallibility in one of his famous quotes:  "no great saint lived without errors."

That's why I try to treat quotes for what they are:  things mortals say.  No matter how clever, or witty, or humorous, or provocative, or insightful they may be, they're things mortals say.

Meanwhile, the Bible is truth from God.  Since He's given His word to us, should we Christians be so enamored by what other people also say?  No, there aren't a lot of snappy one-liners in the Bible, but maybe the thing that makes us comfortable with quotes from mortals is the same thing that helps inhibit our deeper familiarity with God's Word.  With quotes spoken by mortals, we're pretty much free to accept or reject them, based on how much we agree with the message of the quote.  But with the Bible, we know that if we reject God's teachings, we do so at our peril.  How winsome is that?

There's a place in the world for sound bites and iconic cliches, and it seems like the best ones come from people, movies, and books that aren't even trying to add trendy new quotes into our lexicon.  But when it comes to theology, I'm not terribly interested in one-liners by any famous Christians, even if a lot of other evangelicals are.

I'm still working on the original material.

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