I once heard Charleton Heston say...
I was watching a big documentary "look back" at the original Planet of the Apes and Charleton Heston told the strangest story.
As I'm sure you know, there were hundreds of extras on the set during the making of the film, each of them wearing ape make-up. Some bore a chimpanzee likeness (the intellectuals in their simian society), some were orangutans (the politicians and law-makers, like Dr. Zaius), and others were gorillas (the soldiers and keepers of the peace - as in "The only good human is a DEAD human!").
One day, Heston witnessed an incredible sight. When everyone broke for lunch, the people, still dressed as evolved apes, automatically segregated themselves. The chimps ate with the chimps, the orangutans sat down with their yellow-haired kind, and the gorillas rubbed shoulders with their own brutish bunch. No one thought twice about it - it just happened. Heston was astonished and had no explanation for it, especially since there was almost certainly a mixture of Caucasian, Black and Asian actors under the make-up in each segregated group!
Planet of the Apes does something which I truly believe fantasy and science fiction do best. If the day-to-day particulars of our lives are changed - if they are replaced perhaps by an alien landscape - then what is invisible, our beliefs and loyalties and flaws, become easier to recognize. Of these invisibles, Planet of the Apes is largely concerned with the mystery of prejudice.
I once had a fellow at work look at me and mention aloud, in a friendly manner, a suspicion about me -- that I was one of those folks who believes black people are the same as white people. I agreed that he had read me right. He went on to say, in the same friendly tone, "That's all right. I've got enough hate for the both of us."
So I call it the "mystery" of prejudice not to sound high-minded, but because it is a mystery. That fellow's calm, dark statement will forever be a mystery to me. On the other hand, I believe racism is in all of us to some degree -- part of what Christianity describes as a deep fault-line running through our nature. It may not step into the front of our thoughts and announce itself, but it does warp our view of things. In fact, we don't know what it would be like possess entirely "good" sight.
This aspect of fallen human nature began to take on a role in my thoughts about the "many Christians, many interpretations" dilemma. Actually, it entered my thoughts as one phrase, a phrase a friend of mine had spoken to try and cheer me up one day. And that phrase was, "Remember, Lint, people are stupid."
I had been misinterpreted somehow. Someone's knee jerk reaction had left me out in the cold. My friend's words, meant to comfort, were pretty far removed from "There, there. There, there." But they worked. "Remember, Lint. People are stupid." In his tongue-in-cheek manner, he was referring to that fault-line in human nature. "Shake it off, Hatcher," he seemed to be saying. "We all have biases, prejudices, blind spots, even mean streaks that get in the way. Sometimes, we just don't get it. And then, to make matters worse, our pride tells us, 'Oh, you get it. You get it just fine.' Just shake it off, man."
The interesting thing was "People are stupid" included me -- which, given what I know of myself, only gave the phrase more credibility.
It rang true in a pragmatic sort of way. It certainly meshed with the Bible-only perspective on human nature and sin. But it posed a really big problem. Namely, if we are fallen and fallible, why do we trust ourselves to interpret God's Holy Word?
"The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it." Given the reality of "many Christians, many interpretations," it seemed a more accurate phrase might be "The Bible says it. I believe it. And (1) the Scripture is self-interpreting, OR (2) the Holy Spirit will guide me to the right interpretation, OR (3) I don't want to think about it." I had already come to the conclusion that the Scripture does not interpret itself, that it is not a handbook or an encyclopia. A little thing called Our Fall From Grace was sure making it hard to believe in the second option.
We all, like sheep, have a tendency to go astray. It's not that we are completely deaf to God. Certainly, the Holy Spirit guides us in truth. But layer upon layer of sin, bias, prejudice, and just plain poor aptitude do get in the way.
To suggest that the Holy Spirit simply cuts through all this, protecting each individual Christian from interpretive error, is to make each man function as his own private pope. To take the opposite stance, to claim Christ's teachings cannot be known truly and accurately - to do this and yet remain a Christian by name meant embracing, even ennobling unbelief, empty pleasures, and despair. It was The Way Of The Hellbent Intellectual, who argues that one may be "a Christian agnostic." Would Christ tell us to base our very lives on his teachings, yet fail to make a way for us to know, with certainty, what he had taught? Not the Jesus I know.
This, then, was the result: In "Rock, Paper, Scissors," paper beats rock. In lived-out reality, our fallen nature cancels out the functional possibility of private interpretation. The Bible, though it is the Word of God, does not stand up and interpret itself. Witness the conversation in Acts between Phillip and the Ethiopian: "Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asked. "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" Likewise, our fallen nature offers one pot hole, fallen tree, and downed powerline after another in any person's pursuit of a private "me and Jesus got our own thing going" approach to interpreting Scripture. Witness Peter's remarks about Paul's letters: "...just as our dear brother Paul also wrote to you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these things. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction."
My trust in Scripture remained (you may wonder at that!). But something -- a part of life once as unquestioned as gravity -- had ceased to have any credibility whatsoever. I no longer believed "each man ought to interpret the Bible for himself."
I was no longer a Protestant.