Monday, January 18, 2010

Facts and Interpretation

Usually when Christians think of the word 'interpretation' they think of interpretation of the Bible. For this blog, however, our subject is the interpretation of facts. But, you may say, do facts need interpretation? Aren't they true all by themselves?

The answer to that is both yes and no. A firmly established fact by itself needs no interpretation. But facts do need interpretation when they are used to promote ideas. For example, the US Civil War (1861-1865) is a historical fact which contains many historical facts. But when we discuss the causes of the Civil War, we must interpret those facts.

One of the big controversies regarding the interpretation of facts is regarding the origins of the universe, the earth and mankind. Secular biology interprets the facts of scientific discovery one way (in accordance with the theory of evolution) and the Creation scientists interpret them another way. [For the purposes of this blog, I will use the laymen's term "theory" instead of the scientific term "hypothesis". The correct terminology is 'hypothesis of evolution' not the common term 'theory of evolution'.] And proponents of Intelligent Design interpret them yet a third way. (Let us not confuse Creation Science with Intelligent Design.)

All three of these views of our origins use the same scientific facts, but use them in different ways. Evolutionists claim that the facts support their theory and so do the Creation Scientists and Intelligent Design advocates. I will not, in this blog, talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each view. I only wish to point out that all qualify as science. Now evolution is the reigning view today, but that does not make it more scientific.

Evolutionists often claim that Creation Science is not science and should only be taught in religion classes (if at all) instead of biology class. They say that teaching Creation Science (or Intelligent Design) in biology class alongside evolution would be like teaching in a history class that the Holocaust never took place. And there some who deny that the Holocaust ever did take place. But that is a different thing entirely. The Holocaust deniers are not offering a different interpretation of historical facts but are denying well-established facts. It is a denial of facts that is the problem here. Certainly, we should not teach any form of history that expressly denies these facts. Creation Science and Intelligent Design do not deny facts; they interpret them differently.

Now let's examine some facts that you often hear cited in Christian circles. One of them is the statistic that people in churches are as likely to be divorced as those outside the church. I have heard this statistic for many years and I have no reason to doubt it. But how should we interpret this fact? Well, here is a case where we really need more information. Fortunately, deeper studies have apparently been done that shed more light on this subject. One study that I heard of examined people in churches and not only their marital status, but also their place in the church and their own history in it.

What they found is very interesting. They found that those who had the most longevity in church and were considered to be the most active and committed within the church were far less likely than the general population to have ever been divorced. Those who are more on the margins and are more recent members are far more likely than the general population to be divorced. It seems that people who have been recently divorced often go to church (or return to church) after their divorce.
So it may be that, overall, church members are as likely to be divorced as anyone else, but it is different for different groups within the church.

Now this makes sense to me. I do know some people who are deeply committed to the Lord and are very active in the church who also have been divorced. I do not have a problem with that. Divorce is not the unpardonable sin. However, I have noticed that more of the longtime 'core' members of the churches that I have attended generally are not.

What we need to take from all this is that we should not base our preaching on these kinds of statistics because statistics may give us one impression but further study and analysis leave quite another. I am not saying that statistics are always misleading, or that they should not be used. We just have to be careful with them and realize that they are not the last word and probably should not be the basis of our teaching and preaching.

There is another statistic that I have heard over and over for more than 30 years. And it sounds very plausible. I am sure you have heard it, usually from youth ministers. It goes something like this: "If a person is not saved by age 15 (or 14 or another age in that range) their chances of being saved are very slim". This is quoted to get church people to support youth programs.

You might be surprised by what I am about to say about this statistic. You might guess from my skeptical tone that I am about to tell you that this statistic is not true, but I am not going to do that. It is a true statistic; unfortunately, it is also completely irrelevant. The reason that it is irrelevant is because of what Jesus said. "Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it." These are sobering words indeed. Jesus is telling us that only a few find eternal life. These words tell us something statistically. They tell us that only a minority will be saved. That means that if a person is not saved by ANY age, chances are they will not be saved at all. In other words, I could say that if a person is not saved by age 6, chances are that they will never be saved. And I could say the same thing about age 86 as well.

So the statistic about those who do not get saved by their teen years probably will not be saved at all is a true, but irrelevant, statistic. Now, as a person who was saved at age 15 I want to say that I am fully in favor of youth groups and of evangelizing teens. I do not, however, think that we should use this phony statistic to bolster our case. It is unnecessary. If God is leading you to work with the youth, then do so. If you want more support then tell others and let God lead them.

Whenever some statistic seems to bolster our beliefs or arguments, Christians tend to accept it with no examination. This is not good. We have often been taken as suckers. We do not really need statistics to back up our biblical perspective or our ministry. Isn't the Word of God and the leading of the Spirit enough for us? We need to lose our skepticism of the promises of God and the prompting of the Holy Spirit and increase our skepticism of statistics. I think we have it backwards sometimes.

In conclusion, the church needs to use facts and statistics very carefully. Even if they back your own view, do not accept them without examination or further analysis. If more or better information is not available, then lay them aside until you can correctly interpret them.

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