Friday, May 11, 2007

"Authority": who has it, who doesn't, and how can we tell the difference?

Authority -- who has it, who doesn't, and how can we tell the difference? In the blogosphere, and perhaps even moreso within the "Christian" blogosphere, that issue can become quite compelling.

When I began thinking about blogging on the word "authority," I immediately pulled up the Webster's Dictonary definition. Why? Because Webster's to me is a quick and usually trustworthy source for understanding a word's historic roots and present meaning. That is, for me Webster's is normally authoritative regarding word definitions. But by so saying, I am not truly sure I stand on solid ground. Is Webster's the or even an authority on the meaning of "authority" (or any other word)?

So we hit our first hurdle in trying to come to an understanding of authority. We can't be absolutely sure that our alleged "normative" definitions from Webster's are in fact definitive. And so, I ask my readers to step out a bit on faith that Webster's is reliable. We can always come back to that in the comments section if I'm wrong (which does happen).

Etymology: Middle English auctorite, from Anglo-French auctorité, from Latin auctoritat-, auctoritas opinion, decision, power, from auctor1 a (1) : a citation (as from a book or file) used in defense or support (2) : the source from which the citation is drawn b (1) : a conclusive statement or set of statements (as an official decision of a court) (2) : a decision taken as a precedent (3) : TESTIMONY
c : an individual cited or appealed to as an expert2 a : power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior b : freedom granted by one in authority : RIGHT3 a : persons in command; specifically : GOVERNMENT b : a governmental agency or corporation to administer a revenue-producing public enterprise 4 a : GROUNDS, WARRANT b : convincing force synonym see INFLUENCE, POWER

Okay, now I run into my second problem. Let's say the above definitions are "correct" and therefore accepted as authoritative for this discussion of authority. My next normal step would be to unpack their meaning further. But now I'm again stuck. Because the moment I begin to use any words, phrases, or sentences not actually in the Webster's definition, I am again stuck regarding the authority of those words.

Or should I say my reader is stuck? Because the reality (and here comes one of those authoritative-sounding statements) is that it is not my claim of authority that matters. What matters most is whether or not my reader actually gifts me with authority... or more accurately, temporarily at least lends me authority over her / him to teach, instruct, or illuminate on the subject I'm speaking on / writing about.

Then God comes into it. And what a mess that makes.

Socially, then, one might expect that "authority" is constructed. (Uh, duh Trott! Like the post-moderns didn't figure that out a gazillion web words ago?) So a policeman's authority is real enough -- he pulls me over and tickets me for speeding because collectively his fellow human beings (me included) lent him the authority to enforce "rules" or "laws" for our common protection. But the authority, nonetheless, exists because we collectively assent to its existence. The community's idea of authority (whether we like it or not) often trumps the individual's idea of authority. (The gun on the policeman's hip might also give "authority" its most primal meaning, that is, a fear-based respect for what the one carrying it can potentially do in defense of the "rules.")

I suggest that authority should be seen as something a speaker, teacher, or policeman views with special suspicion. He who holds the authority often (and one might say invariably) abuses the authority at some point. This might be in one case an anomaly, in another case part of a larger pattern of abuse rooted in the community's own abusive communal realities. That community can be a nation, a race, a family, or even an individual. Race is often cited by post-moderns as the most pernicious shared delusion of our culture, and has led to horrendous usages of authority in order to reinforce that delusion. The oppression of women by the vast majority of cultures throughout history is perhaps even a better example (though not much moreso) than race. Both underscore and provide a foundation for widespread mistrust regarding authority.

Then God comes into it. And what a mess that makes.

While I still consider myself old-school Jesus Freak by raising, I am largely encouraged and blessed by what has come to be known as the Emergent / Emerging Church. I would find it presumptive on my part to suggest I am emergent, emerging, or whatever other lable one might affix to me. Rather, I have my own issues I'm still working through, and while they do parallel in many ways what is going on among emergent folk, I cannot claim to be riding that new wave. (Rather, the last new wave I rode was probably back in the 1980s or 90s -- red mohawk, anyone? Tats? Piercings?)

I bring up the Emergent folk because what has happened to them at the hands of a certain set of bloggers has also happened to me and others with whom I labor in ministry. Mostly, their comments re myself were funny. For instance, when one "discernment ministry" blog posted that my body piercings were directly from "shamanistic animism," I did laugh. That is, I found the lable doubly humorous, first because it reminded me of the early linkage of rock and roll to voodoo we endured from critics in the Jesus movement era, and second because it was said with such a straight (and authoritative!) tone. Just like the demonic rock'n'roll "authorities" used back in the day!

At the core of that wholesale assault has been the repeated claim of authority -- an authority these critics say is God-given, straight from biblical truths. And their repeated claims reminded me of the Webster's definitions. That is, we can read Webster's words about what a word means. And then we can begin trying to explain what Webster's meant by those words, using our own individual / communal / cultural words and experiences, plus other documents / histories as well. (The latter of course also emanating from individuals / communities.)

My Jesus Freak framework finds in Scripture a set of documents which -- unlike Webster's -- are absolutely authoritative. By faith, I do believe they are God-breathed, God-gifted to us for instruction on matters of faith and practice. I note this not in order to argue it, but rather to make explicit my own framework for attempting to interpret God's will, God's heart and mind, in the various situations I find myself.

Yet simply because those Words are life to me does not mean I can properly, by fiat, interpret them correctly. I, for instance, believed at one point that the Word taught women should always obey their husbands, while the husband was not required to reciprocate. I no longer believe in that sort of "one-way" submission relationship based on gender, and have long promoted the ministry of Christians for Biblical Equality in public and private. Some fellow believers disagree heartily with me on this, yet are also able to understand the reality of honestly differing interpretations of the Word. In other words, "authority" lies in the Word, and not in my words about the Word (or their words about it, either!).

That introduces a significant amount of ambiguity. And of course ambiguity undermines authority. I would be more nervous about making such a suggestion re the ambiguities of the Word, except that the Scriptures themselves seem fairly self-conscious about this reality. For instance, the issue of faith vs. works. While we remain somewhat divided on this issue (the one popularly seen to divide Catholic from Protestant, though that isn't quite as clear-cut historically as it is in our own imaginations), Paul and James seemed less so... again, in my opinion. N. T. Wright among others has gotten in trouble for examining just what Paul did teach on some of this. (Though not yet finished digesting Wright's book on Paul, I suspect Wright is right... but that's another discussion.)

Remember how I said I was a Jesus Freak? That's my historical pedigree, saved in 1973 via (both directly and indirectly) the Jesus movement. And as one pundit from back then said, "The Jesus movement is about Jesus moving." Christ is the ultimate authority, as he himself said before his ascention:

And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20, NRSV)

The disciples, who walked with Christ and saw him die and rise again, still couldn't always agree one what his will was. Paul, Peter, and James had quite a fuss right in front of a new gentile church over the issue of circumcision and related matters. Yet Peter recognized Paul's letters as the Word of God, even as he warns against those who misinterpret Pauline writings and the Scriptures as a whole:

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation. So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures. (2 Peter 3:14-16, NRSV)

That ends my attempt to be philosophical after a blog fashion. Below is a short list of stuff regarding sussing out true and false authority while reading blogs (including mine).

1. What claims for authority are made? In my (again, non-authoritative!) opinion, the first time someone makes a claim for authority, it is a strike against them. Do it twice to me and I'm very unlikely to take that blogger, or her/his blog, seriously.

2. Claims to be "biblical" should raise one's caution flag. Look, I am guilty of this one myself. I often say (though hopefully less often than in the past) "the bible says" and then go on to say something myself! If I say "the bible says" I think in most cases I am also constrained to go ahead and actually cite the bible. From there, it gets trickier, because when I do draw from the Word what I think it is saying, that tends to lower the guard of those reading me. Which leads to...

3. Test everything, in humility. "Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil." (1 Thess. 5:20-22, NRSV)

4. Paul and the other apostles verified their authority most often via their acts rather than their words. This echoed Jesus' own approach, which drew admission of his authority from those who saw his deeds. See Luke 4:30-36, where Jesus' words are immediately backed up by him casting out demons, or Matthew 7:28, 29: "Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes." (NRSV) My words are far more numerous than my deeds, and my deeds (such as they are) often leave me wondering if I've done the best thing, or merely a good thing (hopefully), or a useless, even destructive thing. One shouldn't obsess about such self-analysis, since it is God not us who judges most accurately. But one also shouldn't claim authority which has not been shown to be real in one's own life. Thus, no self-awareness is as dubious as excessive self-awareness.

5. Look at the links the blogger makes to other blogs. Are they thoughtful bloggers, or more intrested in crowning themselves "experts" (a code word for pomposity!)?

6. Does the blogger actually have real education (not a guarantee, but at least a signal of, some knowledge) in the area he/she is specifically speaking to/about? If not, be very careful. All it costs to blog is a little of one's own time and a computer connection to the internet.

7. Check Gretchen Passantino-Coburn's website,, for this great primer on critical thinking. It well equips someone for the wild world of self-apppointed blog "experts" and web quacks.


Lainie Petersen said...

I think that people also need to understand that just because someone was a participant in a group/movement/religion does not make them an "expert" in that group/movement/religion. It gets really tiresome when people will start a "ministry", website, blog, etc, and claim authority on a subject based on their personal experience.

This is dumb, and sadly, many people buy into this sort of "expertise". I needs to stop.

Colin A. Lamm said...

Jon, in our family we have two authorities (when it comes to dictionaries) my wife, like you, is inclined, due to her heretical upbringing, towards the Websters, and I, because of my more solid rearing am grounded upon the Oxford. I pray for the healthy upbringing of our children because of such a divided heritage ;).

Otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your analysis of this issue. Over the years I have burned others and been burned myself over my understanding (or, lack thereof) of this issue. I am most encouraged, however, as I read this, over your emphasis on the authority of Christ, and the God-breathed word. Too often we grant more authority to the interpreter / spokesperson than we do to the word or God Himself.

I will have to re-read this one, you have given a lot of food for thought. Thanks.

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