Monday, April 10, 2006
Little White Lies, OOLs and Narrative ::

My teaching recently has been raising issues of how we relate to biblical narratives. Reading the textbook for the intro class some students were caught (in various ways) by a statement that Bible characters are not role models. Some found the idea liberating, others shocking! In "Justice Issues in the Bible" we used a chapter of John Barton's to begin exploring the use of biblical narrative in ethical discussion. Then Richard Beck had a strongly worded post about the perceived (by Richard and his psychology students) failure of theologians to address many real life issues. I've interacted with him in his comments about a couple of points, here I want to take up the issue of what I've always heard called "Little White Lies", which he gives the nicely descriptive psychological name of "Other Oriented Lies" (hereinafter OOLs).

Richard wrote:
Data tells us that humans lie all the time. And I mean ALL THE TIME. It's not often big lies, but we tell small lies constantly. About 10 a day to be conservative. And that isn't counting dishonesties such as laughing a co-worker's joke that isn't funny. What is interesting is that most of these lies, like laughing at the poor joke, are meant to be acts of "service," dishonesties meant to protect another person's feelings. Psychologists call these "other-oreinted lies."

So, my students ask: Are all these lies sin? I'd like to answer that question. They don't seem like sins to me or my students. But it is hard to find sources with good theological discussions about such topics. You could take an ethics class, but that isn't really theology.
I replied (in part):
Why on earth should OOLs be sinful? Where in the Bible (I'm a Baptist, so the main source of my theology is Scripture ;-) does it say that to lie is sinful?

"Bearing false witness" is clearly sinful, but OOLs hardly count as "false witness"...

Jesus tells us (following Jewish wisdom) that we should be people of our word ("Let your 'yes' be 'yes' and your 'no' be 'no'" Mat 5:37) but do OOLs really contravene this command?

I'd have thought the direction of a theological response to OOLs was fairly simple... Read your Bible!

BTW if you want a good precedent for an OOL approved by God, think of the whopper the midwives told Pharaoh (Ex 1:19).
We had also been talking about free will and contingency, on that Richard wrote:
Humans are contingent beings. Circumstances of birth or small changes in life events can drastically affect the course of a life. Examples here are legion. So, I'm not saying we have no choice, but rather that choice can be very circumscribed.

I think most would agree with this. If so, then how do we make this idea jive with soteriology?
I'm not going to comment on soteriology (I'm an OT teacher!), but did reply:
I wonder if it is precisely a recognition of human contingency that results in such a very high proportion of the Bible being "narrative".

Systematic writing, "law", "letters" etc. finds it difficult to cope with complex contingent behaviour. Narrative requires such a reading (else the narrative is not "true to life" and so is poor narrative). That's why most of the Bible does not have systematic meaning, though texts like Aesop's Fables do (see Judges 9 for a [very rare/unique?] biblical example of a narrative with a single simple "meaning".

When we read Jacob's story we do not learn a (more or less) simple set of rules e.g. "do not lie, except when...", rather we learn about a contingent and broken human life lived in relationship with God.

To annoy colleagues I have often said that Systematic Theology is an oxymoron, and I am only half joking ;) (I don't know an emoticon for "half joking"!)
Narrative by its nature invites us to "enter the world" of the story, and to make judgments on the characters, and thus on ourselves. Such engagement enables and encourages us to work out our response to life in a "biblical" way, but it does not equip us with simple neat rules.

Richard's implied complaint that theologians do not equip people to do theology in the real world is only partly fair. Theologians have responses to the sorts of issues he raises, though too often these responses are NOT (let's admit it) communicated to students. And when they ARE, too often the student fails to communicate this to their listeners when it is their turn to be the teacher (e.g. in a local church setting). Pastors and teachers seem to assume that most Christians cannot cope with such complexity and/or prefer neat simple answers: Lying is sin... Such protective responses are either horribly arrogant: "I can cope with complexity but these poor folk cannot!" or shows a lack of intellectual capacity in the pastor: "I can't cope with such complexity, so I'll act as if the Bible always gave us neat simple rules!"

How sad... we need to ensure better theological education and so grow Christians better equipped for life.


* John Barton, “Ethics and Story”, Ethics and the Old Testament (2nd Ed) London: SCM, 2002, 19-36 [return]

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