Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Evangelical Reflections after a JW District Convention

Reflections? Well, first of all, on the whole Jehovah's Witnesses are nice, normal people. People you can have real conversations with, people you can laugh with, people who have ordinary human emotions. Don't buy wholesale into the stereotype of a "cultist" and apply it to them, because whatever the points of connection there, the stereotype as a whole will mislead. Also, in general the Jehovah's Witnesses were less friendly and warm at the convention than they had been at the Kingdom Hall. This makes good sense, though. The simple fact of the matter is that smaller communities tend to have that feel, because everyone's more comfortable, everyone is on familiar terms, and things are often less hectic. (That's why I'd probably be most comfortable in a church of about 30-40 people, where the membership is reflective of the demographics of the local community as a whole or maybe a bit younger, rather than my home church with about 200 members.) At the Kingdom Hall, spotting an outsider is easy. It's that person whose face you don't quite recognize. At the convention, however, there was no simple way to distinguish an outsider from an insider. Even the name tags probably weren't a totally reliable guide; I doubt every confirmed Witness was wearing one. Certainly no one knows more than a miniscule segment of the audience. Plus, in such a large crowd, those sorts of friendly greetings just aren't as feasible.

Now, there are some other things I've noticed. First, Jehovah's Witnesses place a large emphasis on works. I lost track of how many times they spoke of living up to "God's righteous requirements" as absolutely necessary for salvation. And, of course, you'll recall my notes about the prominence of keeping busy. Gotta stay busy, gotta be active, can't afford to miss a single one of the weekly meetings, even just once, because that would be, for all practical purposes, a sin. At the very least, it'd be shameful.

In fairness, they have cut back to just two weekly meetings, including Sunday, but each is several hours longer than a typical evangelical service, youth group, or other regular event, and the real point is the stigma involved in missing one.

And also, don't get me wrong. Jehovah's Witnesses do have a sense of God's grace and mercy. Recall that one of Satan's five traps was inordinate guilt. The speaker there said some quite profound things about grace. And it is true that some of their discussion of works serves to counterbalance a common post-Reformation 'easy believism' that undersells the importance of submission to one's Lord and the transformation of one's life, including one's conduct. But the emphasis here is all wrong, and especially dangerous is the drive to stay busy with overwhelming participation. This is the recipe for burnout and would probably help explain the aforementioned studies on mental illness incidence rates among Jehovah's Witnesses, if they have any modicum of validity. I understand and appreciate the JW rationale for this drive: if the end is really so close at hand, perhaps even five years or less (though that's not a date they've set or anything), then we've got a serious deadline on our hands. And yes, that does produce stress in the frenzy of activity to meet it, but once it's done, then the relaxation gets to happen. The only problem, though, is this: the end probably isn't going to be that soon. Certainly could be, I can't deny that... but it could just as well be 1829 years from now. And humans aren't built for that kind of constant pressure. We can often take it, but we aren't supposed to, and the pressure can definitely make us crack. Many Jehovah's Witnesses don't see it as a burden, but it no doubt can become one. To that extent, it can be dangerous. And at any rate, it smacks of implicit legalism.

Furthermore, there's that whole conformity thing. There seems to be an almost neurotic impulse to centralize, to have everything be made uniform by imposition from on high. Worldwide, Jehovah's Witnesses have one translation of the Bible, one songbook, one common publication set, one devotional. Every Sunday they sit through the exact same talk outline, study the exact same article, sing the exact same songs to the exact same performance of the music. Everywhere. A Kenyan JW can enter a Kingdom Hall in Siberia and know exactly what his or her family back home is hearing and doing. And there are positives to that. But it's also insane. There's joy in diversity. I see no reason to think that the apostolic church did anything remotely like this. Think of this: when the Corinthian congregation received a letter from Paul, they'd be hearing something on the Lord's day that the congregation in Rome wouldn't be. Oh noes! Something different! But the apostles had no problem with this. Another problem with this sort of conformity is that it allows for no contextualization. One thing I love about Christianity is how it interacts with cultures in so many rich and diverse ways. Jehovah's Witnesses will never have a Brahmabandhab Upadhyay. Everything is canned and exported from right here in the good old United States of America. I doubt the Governing Body has ever had a non-American member. And thus the method of approach is somewhat like what many churches had during the days of colonialism and imperialism.

Also troubling is the emphasis on their special publications. Now, let me clear up a misconception. I've heard it said that Jehovah's Witnesses demean the Bible and only know their select prooftexts. But think about how the Scriptures saturated each and every talk of the convention. How many countless verses were referenced? And were they drawn just from one part of the Bible. No, they were from the Psalms and the Prophets, from the Gospels and the epistles, from Genesis and Revelation. (Though I think John's Gospel might've gotten less airtime than the Synoptics.) So let it never be said that Jehovah's Witnesses don't seek to rely on the Bible. However, the emphasis placed on their own publications is inordinate. So many times they listed crucial things as the Bible, JW publications, and meeting together as Christians--in that order. The publications were frequently second only to Scripture. Now, it must be recognized that they concede that their publications are neither Scripture nor inspired, and they would vehemently repudiate any suggestion that they put their own material on par with the Bible. Still, the contents of those works are considered to be, by virtue of their source, solid spiritual nourishment. And I have a feeling that if someone in a Kingdom Hall publicly expressed doubts about the contents of a Watchtower article, they'd quickly find themselves censured and probably disciplined. That approach belies, on a practical level, their distinction between Scripture and their publications. Of course, they would perhaps say that their publications do have authority, but only because they reliably expound the Scriptures, and so the authority is purely derivative--exegetical rather than prophetic in nature. Do with that what you will. Unlike most anything you'll find within mainstream Christianity--even groups that do hold certain documents in high regard--the difference here is that for Witnesses, the literature is ongoing and is ascertained to be authoritative by its source, whereas other groups generally make judgments about authority only after a thorough examination of the document.

Furthermore, the emphasis on study aids is out of whack. I won't deny that many Christians, especially of the fundamentalist variety, could stand to learn a little something here. Recourse should be made to the storehouses of information in the community of faith as a whole when approaching Scripture, and that can be made available through scholarly commentaries, theological writings, etc. So these should be used in Bible study, in their appropriate place, with the text itself always maintaining supremacy. But when you agree to a "home Bible study" with Jehovah's Witnesses, never think that you might work through a book of the Bible. No. You will work through a "study aid" instead, a thematic book that seeks to synthesize the basics of biblical teaching, the gospel message plus some. This, and not the Bible, will be the primary resource for a Bible study. There may well be days when the Bible never even gets pulled out. When it does, it's typically just to check verse references, with some possible discussion as guided by the study aid. This is not a real Bible study. It is a book study. And there is nothing wrong with book studies. But they are not bona fide Bible studies. In an actual Bible study, the Bible is the primary resource and all others are secondary, even when the practically serve as authoritative guides to interpretation. A thematic Bible study presents slightly less of this emphasis, particularly when a study guide is used, but the biblical text will still manage to be primary and supreme, at least in theory. I think if you approached a Jehovah's Witness for a Bible study and then suggested working through a book of the Bible--especially one on which they don't have a commentary prepared--the reaction would be somewhat uncomfortable. I suspect that the Witness would attempt to persuade you to change your mind, and I have no confidence that the Witness would ever agree to a study of a biblical book like that. Now, I get the appeal of publications like What Does the Bible Really Teach?. It sets forth basic JW teachings in a simple, easy-to-understand format. And they manage to avoid thorny, controversial issues with simple (often simplistic) answers--things like grace and works, or certain facets of the atonement, or free will and foreknowledge. It all generally seems very cogent, and the teaching method allows investigators to feel quite intelligent as they answer very simple questions based on the paragraph they just read. And I sometimes wish that Christians had something kind of like Reasoning from the Scriptures. But these things are flawed in various and diverse ways.

In connection with this, there's also the matter of research. Suppose you're in a discussion with a Jehovah's Witness, and a question surfaces that they can't answer. They promise to do a bit of research. Now, if this were an orthodox Christian, the Christian might look to a few commentaries and study references, contemplate the issue, synthesize things a bit. For the Jehovah's Witness, however, research means finding an article or two in the Watchtower. No need to look at any other resources, because those smart fellas in Brooklyn have already done the hard work. All the Witness needs to do is open their library computer program, check the index for the topic at hand, and there's the authoritative answer if there is one. This excessive reliance on the "faithful and discreet slave class" is highly problematic, in my opinion, because it filters everything through a single channel. There's no need to go beyond it, and doing so would be highly discouraged.

Since the last few reflections have all been critical, though, it's time for a quick positive. The crowd was very diverse in age, sex, race, you name it. I'd say that the audience was at most 50% Caucasian. The rest were mostly black; I saw very few Jehovah's Witnesses of Hispanic or Asian descent, although one of the speakers was apparently an Asian-American (with, of course, a nearly indecipherable accent). This makes me wonder about the demographics of the communities in the district. Did the convention have representative ratios, or was it skewed towards certain groups? Well, beats the heck out of me, especially since I have no idea what the geographical spread of the district is like. There were definitely folks from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey.

Finally, I'd be remiss in withholding some comments about the apocalyptic focus of the whole affair. Now, my readers will most likely recall that I'm a preterist. (Not to be confused with hyper-preterists, who are heretical in their emphatic denial of the future coming of Christ to judge the quick and the dead, as well as of the future resurrection.) As a preterist, I believe that substantial portions of 'eschatological' prophecies were fulfilled in the past already, including the bulk of Revelation, which--like the Olivet Discourse--has reference to the first century. In my view, the beast of Revelation is the Roman Empire--not some future "revived Roman Empire", but the actual Roman Empire of history, and the false prophet is the cooperative temple establishment that rejected Jesus and was judged in the Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 AD (curious, those seven years, in the middle of which the temple was destroyed...). The figure of "Babylon" in Revelation either symbolizes Rome itself or, as I am more inclined to think, Jerusalem. As a preterist, I seek to take very seriously the time indicators in Scripture about Christ's parousia or the end of the age being "soon" or present to "this generation"--soon to the hearers and readers then, not necessarily to us now, and "this generation" being the more obvious referent of the contemporary generation then, not the generation that happens to be around for the distantly future beginning of the eschatological process. The message was not one of relatively swift execution of all those things at some distant date, but rather of swift execution then and there. (And let's not get into trying to reinterpret genea there as "race" rather than "generation"; while coherent, it doesn't seem to be what Jesus would have been likely to say in his context, and is without very strong precedent in the history of interpretation.)

Consequently, I was not in the least persuaded by anything I heard at the convention. Now, to explain a bit, Jehovah's Witnesses set the date of 1914--after, of course, some trial and error--by picking a date for the Babylonian Captivity and then seeing the 2,520 days of Daniel as being 'prophetic days', thus equal to ordinary years. But the text never gives indication that the day-for-a-year rule is to be applied to those, and the more reasonable approach seems to be to regard them, as do most, as 2,520 actual days, whether symbolic or literal. So their message of impending judgment, based on these calculations, are not in the least convincing to someone who rejects that premise. Furthermore, I don't see an impending "great tribulation", as that's been done, whether the tribulation is the war itself or else seven years of Neronian persecution. (And don't get me started on 666, Hebrew gematria, and the Hebrew for "Nero Caesar"!) And I don't see the destruction of "Babylon the Great" in the future, as I don't think it was meant to signify all false religion, although I agree that a day will come when those will indeed pass away when the truth is revealed unmistakably to all. (But unlike Jehovah's Witnesses, I think they're one of 'em!) And, as a tentative amillennialist (though open to certain forms of postmillennialism), I dissent from their views on Satan and the millennium. And at any rate, I think that while the real powers of darkness are often underplayed in contemporary Western Christianity, Satan is often oversold, especially in more fundamentalist circles. Do I have all the answers on eschatology? No, and it isn't a field I worry about too much, though I'm certainly interested. More so than protology, at least. But at any rate, suffice it to say that Jehovah's Witnesses have not convincingly presented their case to anyone who isn't already somewhere near futurism or else a blank slate.

Heh, there were so many times when it just hit me like a brick in the face that... all these people are really Jehovah's Witnesses! I suppose I felt a tad alone in certain respects there, as the outsider. Perhaps if I'm around for next year's, I'll have to see about dragging a couple fellow evangelicals along with me...

On the whole, attending the convention was a fruitful experience. I could feel the excitement, I could get caught in the excitement. And I could feel the alluring pull. I can understand why an investigator at the convention might be moved to be more closely associated with Jehovah's Witnesses. If it weren't for my doctrinal qualms and the social problems I pointed out, I would've no doubt been even more strongly pulled. The atmosphere is somewhat difficult to describe. The weekend is surprisingly exhausting, but also upbuilding, especially if viewed from a Jehovah's Witness perspective. In that respect it's kind of like an evangelical worship retreat, or our conferences. Draining yet filling. It's an experience I'm glad I had. Quite glad. I wouldn't want to send an orthodox Christian lacking in strong discernment skills in there, though. I can see why so many undertrained orthodox believers are easy pickings for Jehovah's Witnesses. And that's a crying shame.

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