Fact Checking Faith: The Entanglement of History, Policy, and Scripture

The following post, written by The Rev. Robert A. Franek, is a part of Politicus Policy Discussion, in which writers draw connections between real lives and public policy.

When it comes to matters of policy and even basic historical facts, fact checkers are in no danger of running low on material. They provide a crucial public service. Without these correctives the public discussion has no grounding in reality.

The Trump campaign is the par excellence example of living in a fact-free, ahistorical world so far from reality even cartoon ponies are real. This might even be mildly amusing to reality-based observers, except for the danger of all the people believing this alternate reality to be in fact true. And truthfully, there is nothing remotely amusing about the hate and fear that seems to have no limit to its offense.

The consequences of the Trump campaign are not only destroying the entire Republican brand, but reducing the public conversation in a presidential campaign to matters of basic history and observable truth.

But what happens when scripture is tossed around the policy making table? Is there a fact checker for matters of faith to keep the conversation honest? When there is no historical fact to point to or the figures and formulas that undergirds the fundamental dimensions of policy, how does one fact check a dimension of life so open to interpretation?

My own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, over a decade ago lifted up four ways of reading scripture to help us a faith community become more fluent in the first language of faith the language of scripture. Several studies were developed around reading scripture: historically, literarily, theologically, and devotionally.

Reading the scriptures historically involves asking questions of context and culture, authorship and for whom was the text written. We learn as much about the message of Jesus as we do about the communities for whom the Gospels were written for example.

A literary reading begins by asking what type of literature are we reading. Is this prose or poetry, parable or epistle, prophetic speech, or teaching? From this vantage point we can discover how the form of the texts shapes its meaning.

Analyzing a text from the theological perspective provides the basis for and insights to various doctrines of the church. These insights help shape the fundamental systems of belief that lead to many faith practices including public policy advocacy especially for the sake of the vulnerable neighbor and the ecosystems that sustain life.

Listening to the scriptures devotionally seeks to discover what they are saying to searching hearts, minds, and souls. This can be both personal and communal. More than analysis this method of reading centers on deep listening to the Spirit speaking through the text.

There are of course many more ways of reading scripture, but these four provide a foundational starting point with guiding principles that prevent the distortions of fundamentalist readings. Further, drawing insights from all of these reading methods will provide grounding in the core revelation of scripture namely, God’s steadfast faithfulness. It is to this steadfast faithfulness that God calls individuals and communities to respond. Working for justice and peace in the mode of compassion through policy making is one crucial way people of faith respond to God’s faithful promise.

Individual and communal reading of scripture following the principles of these four reading methods will provide a grass roots type of fact check of the distortions so prevalent in the media today. As the insights gained from these readings are shared and put into practice the fruits of this labor will be a counter-testimony to distorted punditry. This living embodied witness to the gospel will do more than a simple fact check; it will foster a culture of working toward to the common good for all around shared values.

It is important to keep in mind that scripture will always have a surplus of meaning and room for multiple understandings and interpretations as this living word continues to speak a fresh word to ever changing realities. Still, core values of caring for the weak and vulnerable, the poor and hungry, the orphan and oppressed persist along with the call to be stewards of creation and of our lives, money, and possessions. These are all matters that extend beyond the personal dimension of our lives and into the public square.

I believe as people of faith become more fluent in these and other ways of reading scripture, we will together become more rooted in the stories that ground our faith so that we can come to the policy making table guided by the enduring values revealed in scripture.

Engaging the scriptures through these lenses we can begin to disentangle the knots where history, policy, and scripture have been misconstrued so that we may have a clearer understanding and vision for moving forward towards the flourishing of life for every person and cosmic creation in the interdependent ecosystems that foster life.