the judge and the hipster guru: a lesson in reading

As far as TV goes, the confirmation hearings for a Supreme Court nominee aren’t exactly must-see. It’s like an episode of Shark Tank only without any of the entertainment value or ingenious inventions like this. Actually confirmation hearings are sort of like two arguing parents who use a request from their child as an opportunity to air all of their grievances with each other.

“Nancy, if you would just loosen up, you would realize that a little candy isn’t going to kill the boy.”

“You would say that, Frank. Sure, make me the bad guy again. Maybe my mother was right about you after all.”

Much of the time in a confirmation hearing is spent with the two political parties trying to score points against each other. The nominee becomes a prop for a larger political agenda even when, as seemed to be the case with Neil Gorsuch this week, the nominee is attempting to be and deeply desires to be apolitical. The truth is that in places like Washington, being apolitical is simply not an option.

I find myself interested in Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation for reasons that are a bit different than most people. The job of a Supreme Court Justice is exegetical not political – at least that’s the intent. As a person who is concerned about and teaches biblical exegesis, it’s noteworthy that Neil Gorsuch represents one side of a historical debate that has been ongoing for generations. When it comes to the interpretation of texts – particularly sacred texts (which would certainly apply to the traditional understanding of scripture and would also apply in a way to the Constitution) who or what has authority in our interpretations? Does the original intent or contemporary needs have final authority?

There is no doubt where Neil Gorsuch stands in regards to the Constitution and the Law.

“Judges should… strive (if humanly and so imperfectly) to apply the law as it is, focusing backward, not forward, and looking to text, structure, and history to decide what a reasonable reader at the time of the events in question would have understood the law to be — not to decide cases based on their own moral convictions or the policy consequences they believe might serve society best.”

“Judges should be in the business of declaring what the law is using the traditional tools of interpretation, rather than pronouncing the law as they might wish it to be in light of their own political views.”

“Throughout my decade on the bench, I have watched my colleagues strive day in and day out to do just as Socrates said we should — to hear courteously, answer wisely, consider soberly, and decide impartially.”

Judges should “regularly issue judgments with which they disagree as a matter of policy — all because they think that’s what the law fairly demands.”

“Though the critics are loud and the temptations to join them may be many, mark me down too as a believer that the traditional account of the judicial role Justice Scalia defended will endure.”

Echoing those sentiments, he said at the announcement of his nomination: “In our legal order, it is for Congress, not the courts, to write new laws… a judge who likes every outcome he reaches, is very likely a bad judge, stretching for results he prefers, rather than those the law demands.”

Neil Gorsuch, to use a phrase I heard many times from one of my own teachers, wants to work as hard as possible to “let the text win.” The text of the Constitution wins even when I may not like it. The text wins even when it disagrees with popular or personal sentiment. The text wins over partisan politics. The text wins. He acknowledges his own imperfections in arriving at these unbiased judgments. Exegesis at its best is always an exercise of submission and humility – sometimes we are better than at other times. But our imperfections must not cause us to throw up our hands and give up trying. No, our imperfections throw us into more serious and self-critical study because what this text says and means matters.

The cynicism of politics being what it is however, Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer has blasted Gorsuch for his far right-wing bias despite his appearance of being impartial. Because Schumer knows better, and we are all so very fortunate to have his level-headed, unbiased assessment. According to Schumer, Gorsuch too often takes the side of “corporations” and “management” (scare quotes intended) against the little guy just trying to get a fair shake. So, Schumer is arguing in essence that people should not get a fair hearing from the court. It is a person’s status in society and not the letter of the law that should determine judgments. In a world where everything and everyone is biased, no one is exempt. Either you are biased for me or you are biased against me. Chuck Schumer is dangerously wrong. He is so wrong that even CNN published a piece that said so.

Chuck Schumer represents pretty well the other side of this debate – it is ideology and the needs of the moment which should guide interpretation not some archaic notion of original intent. On team Schumer, we also have everybody’s favorite pastor, turned teacher, turned videographer, turned hipster author, turned heretic (too far?), turned Oprah Couch Guru, Rob Bell.

Take three minutes and watch this video where Bell explains his position on homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Let me first say that this isn’t all bad. There are some laudable things that Bell says here. What I find so disconcerting is Bell’s notion of authority. In his view “God is pulling us forward” in this day and age to full acceptance of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. How does he know this? Is it based on God’s revealed Word? Heavens no. If anything, God in this day is pulling us away from the message of his Word according to Bell. Is it based on some epiphany or special vision from God that Bell has had? No. Bell is no Charismatic. What has ultimately convinced Rob Bell is the Internet. Yes, the Internet is a “refining fire” showing us that we might have been living with a bunch of views and perspectives that don’t work or “bring life.” The Internet told him to question his traditional beliefs. I wonder what other traditional, dogmatic beliefs the Internet is telling us to abandon. I kid. I kid. Kind of. It is true that exposing ourselves to people with competing beliefs, ideologies, lifestyles, and worldviews is a very good thing for us. It does force us to rethink and re-evaluate our positions on a number of things. But the mere existence of alternative beliefs does not compel us to abandon our own – particular when those beliefs are not merely our own but are also shared by 2000 years of Church tradition and the revelation of Scripture itself.

Rob Bell has discovered and hopes that the Church will discover that “the old way of doing things doesn’t work.” (One would wonder why people like Rob Bell would withdraw from located ministry when they are still so concerned about what the Church believes about the issues of our time.) I strongly recommend that you watch this conversation between Rob Bell and Andrew Wilson for more perspective. Andrew Wilson responds much more articulately to Bell than I could ever hope to. One of the more revealing moments is when Wilson offers the historical position of the Church based on the exegesis of critical passages and Bell responds with the ubiquitous “that’s based on your interpretation.” This is the Chuck Schumer approach to interpretation. Everything is merely an interpretation. It’s interpretations all the way down. Bias is everywhere including in traditional understandings. It is a particularly cynical way of looking at interpretation. And it’s also absurd. There are such things as good and bad, good and better interpretations. My daughter’s interpretation of Chopin is objectively not as good as that of a concert pianist. But Bell seeks to extricate himself from 2000 years of interpretative tradition with a bland “that’s just your interpretation.”

When it comes to interpretation, authority matters. Bell takes his cues from the authority of a culture which is changing with breath-taking speed. (This is even though he couches it in mystical phrases like “God is pulling us forward.” Have you ever noticed how with guys like Bell the movement of God is always in conformity with culture and rarely a prophetic rebuke against culture?). Gorsuch takes his cues from the authority of the text that governs our nation. Call it old fashioned or naive or “dangerously right wing” but I’m on Team Gorsuch especially when it comes to biblical interpretation (but largely when it comes to Constitutional interpretation as well). God has exercised his authority to the Church through scripture. At the end of the day, God has spoken and the text wins – even on those occasions when I don’t like it or when culture doesn’t like it. I must study. I must be thoughtful. I must be self-critical. But not for the purpose of making scripture say something fundamentally different or to make it “relevant.” No, my desire is to hear the Word of God as clearly as possible because that is the refining fire that we all need.

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