Some Limitations of the "I Have a Friend or Family Member" Appeal

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Likely you have heard someone suggest that a certain point of view is correct because they make an appeal such as "I have a friend who..." Sometimes the word 'friend' is substituted by a family member, or a person featured in a video, or a person in a book. Of course the personal connection packs the most punch and can seem to be the most persuasive. But is everything what it appears to be? Is this the best way for individuals and a church to do its theologizing?

I would like to challenge the idea that a church can do its theologizing based on the "I have a friend who..." on three counts. First of all, no matter how compelling the anecdotal argument, how pressing the pastoral care, and how touching the emotional appeal, this is essentially a human centered approach to an issue of the day. Secondly, an appeal to a friend can be a highly selective sampling out of a much wider range of friends who may be unrepresented, but who have a completely opposite point of view. Thirdly, as much as narrative or story telling has highly persuasive power, if the story is based on shaky assumptions, it might be a tool for presenting less than the whole truth.

Let us look at these three areas by means of three questions. 

Can the actions of a friend or family member be the ultimate judge of what is right or wrong?

For instance,  someone might say: "I have a church-going family member who divorced his wife after having an affair with his secretary whom he then married. They are a very happy couple and very much in love. God must approve of their new marriage." What is appealed to human standards of what constitutes happiness, love and how God views things. What is missing are the standards of the Word of God, along with mention of the fractured marriage vows, and the emotional scarring that very likely happened to other family members. 

What about all the other friends who have not spoken? Are they being listened to?

For instance, someone might say: "I have a friend who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day. This person does not have lung cancer. Thus the surgeon general is wrong to say that smoking causes lung cancer." What is appealed to in this case is the exception. In other words, the exception is used to prove or disprove the rule. That is to say, the surgeon general has found a definite cause and effect between smoking and lung cancer and all of those who have suffered this disease would need to be marshaled for all sides of the argument to be presented.         

Is it possible that the compelling story is really only one side of a picture, and that it might be based on false assumptions?

A conference featured a compelling video presentation. It pulled on the heart-strings of the audience. Reports after the meeting told that this story had moved some of the audience towards the accepting the ideas that the presenter wanted them to embrace. At first glance the video appeared pastoral, sensitive and compassionate. One might say that from a communications standpoint it was a success because it had the power to influence opinion.

But what happens if the ideas that the presenter was advocating were based on shaky foundations of highly selective Biblical interpretation.? Take for instance the book series, Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. Someone might make a presentation and a video of a person who had been greatly encouraged by the devotional materials of Sarah Young. The video might even feature an interview with Sarah Young herself. After all, in Sarah Young's book, these are highly personal messages from Jesus who seems to be speaking directly to someone. At first glance the material appears pastoral, sensitive and compassionate. The only problem is that this is a Jesus who might be called another Jesus, whose "revelations" to Sarah Young are more akin to New Age channeling, than what the Bible says.  

Summary:

These three questions could be interpreted as someone trying to throw water on a fire. After all, a personal story of a personal friend or a personal family member needs to be accepted, should it not? After all, this is my friend Chong or Maryam, and this is my son or daughter or grand-daughter Emelia or Ernesto.

For a church to do its theologizing based on Chong's, Maryam's, Emelia's and Ernesto's stories could, however, cause it  to tread on dangerous ground.

  1. The timeless Word of God which is God's mega-narrative transcends all of these pastorally important, yet very limited in time and space mini-narratives, and it must rule supreme.
  2. To use their stories as the interpretive tool for this Word of God, could be very short-sighted as the global Church has almost 2000 years of experience in a wide variety of situations.
  3. For a church to do its theologizing based on what might appear to be extremely urgent and pressing pastoral needs of Chong, Maryam, Emelia and Ernesto, along with their family and friends, can place it in a perpetual hamster's treadmill of responding to the latest "emergency."

Questions:

  • Have you ever heard a "I have a friend/family member who... and thus the church must do XYZ" appeal? Was it compelling? How did you respond?    
  • If the CRCNA needs to do its theologizing on any kind of a current topic, should it form its theological and pastoral response mostly on narratives, anecdotes and "I have a friend who..." appeals? How would it determine the limits of their usefulness?
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