We need words in order to think.
And there are certain individual words so powerful, that just the mere fact of their existence helps us to think more clearly than we could without them. One of these is the word shibboleth. To learn this word is to be able to name incalculably more of what is going on in the human interactions we see going on all around us from our family systems at Thanksgiving to our Twitter feed. It comes from a somewhat obscure biblical story.
Without getting into too much detail, one tribe, the Gileadites, was fighting another tribe, the Ephraimites, because why wouldn’t they? At one point, the Gileadites captured a strategically important beachhead along the Jordan river, leaving several straggler Ephraimites trapped in the newly the occupied territory. Because these two tribes had similar physical features, it wouldn’t have been unthinkable for these stragglers to try to escape across the river to safety, if not for one oddity of speech. Because the Ephraimites did not have the “sh” sound in their dialect of Hebrew,
the Gileadites quickly learned that they could test whether someone was a fugitive of Ephraim by asking them to pronounce the word “shibboleth.” The meaning of the word itself, “stalk of corn,” didn’t matter. What mattered was that an Ephraimite would pronounce it “sibboleth,” as if speaking with a lisp. Failing the test, they would then be executed (Judges 12:1-7).
That’s why, today, if you look up shibboleth in your English dictionary, it’ll say something like “an otherwise meaningless code of behavior, speech, dress, or conduct used to distinguish an in-group from an out-group.”
If we understand this word, then it will be much easier to identify what is going on right now in our culture with a much more complicated word: faith. The word faith gets passed around constantly, both inside and outside our formal religious institutions, as if everyone is agreed on what it means and that meaning has never changed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Here are just a few snapshots of what I’m talking about.
In the Jesus movement of the early first century, the word faith meant trusting Jesus when he promises that God’s kingdom of justice and peace is going to replace Caesar’s Rome as the ruling order of the known world. To have faith didn’t mean agreeing with certain true or false statements about the age of the earth or about how Mary and Joseph’s love life rated on the hot tamale scale while they were still dating. It meant earnestly expecting that God wills good things for the world, that God is going to somehow bring justice and peace to to all people in our warring, hateful societies, and most outlandishly of all, that this takeover was going to happen nonviolently.
For several complicated reasons, this meaning was largely (though not entirely) forgotten, and by medieval times, faith, for most of Europe, meant having your name on the roster of the right religious institution. It’s worth mentioning that this Christianity was no longer a beleaguered band of prostitutes and fishers but had become the single wealthiest institution in the known world. For some reason, they didn’t want to remind everyone how Jesus (and, ironically enough, Mary) had said that the days are numbered for all power imbalances. Though there were always exceptions, the establishment mostly preferred to get simple Christians focused on otherworldly issues.
Jump ahead to the turn of the 20th century. The proto-science of secular humanism had been questioning the old worldview for centuries. While you did have your occasional flare ups between the church and your Galileos or your Copernici, which get all the press, today, most simple Christians were more concerned with feeding their families than participating in these debates. And a lot of the more educated Christians just integrated the new discoveries into their understanding of God, intuitively, with little fuss. So, for all of their other problems (which were many) most European denominations experienced what you might call a “soft landing” onto the modern scientific worldview, albeit with a lag time in places like Rome.
But it was different in America. Because of the looser, tent-revival type denominations that developed in our history, you had the existence of something that could never have existed in Europe. You had some church leaders sitting on a few very specific branches of the protestant tree, who were not overly educated but wielded a large amount of influence. So when some pot-stirring science teachers in the US had the audacity to teach… well… science…to their classes (specifically, Evolutionary Theory), this louder and more reactionary segment of Christians snapped into defense mode faster than you can say, “Galapagos.”
Like a traveler running behind a train after it has already left the station, this group quickly started drawing up their “fundamentals,” those true or false statements which you either affirm or you’re cutoff from the in-group.
You see where I’m going with this: having "faith” no longer meant having a vital, real world expectation that God is going to bring healing to the hurting, justice to the poor, forgiveness of all debts, and reconciliation to all things (Luke 4:16-21). The word became shibboleth.
When you look at the five fundamentals that were laid out in response to the old evolution debate, their main concern has nothing to do with the heart of the Christian story and everything to do with dividing the humanity into us, the “believers,” and them. You can tell this, because what they all have in common, is they all take language that was either mystical, imagery-based, or a highly debated side concern in the ancient church, and they harden it into something concrete, simple, matter-of-fact.
For example, the Bible had always been respected as a canon or “measuring stick” that would reliably call the church back to its story, when read intelligently and taken as a whole. But it had never been used as an “infallible” encyclopedia of literal religious facts. Actually, for most of the church’s history, it was believed that there were four ways of interpreting scripture of which the “literal” reading was the least important, and the “allegorical” or “anagogical” reading, the most.
Likewise, the virginity of Mary was something that only two of the four gospel authors thought important enough to mention. And although they may well have seen this as factual truth, their main concern was probably not to make Mary a symbol of abstinence for youth groups everywhere but to show that Jesus posed legitimate competition to Caesar Augustus, who was also said to be born of a virgin. This, in a similar vein to how calling Jesus “Lord” or “Son of God” was a way of subverting and agitating the claims of the ruler in Rome.
Mysteries and metaphors simply don’t make good shibboleths. Plain, wooden, true or false statements do. For something to be an effective code word, it needs to be simple, standardized, and non-negotiable. This is true for any kind of fundamentalism across religious traditions, though I start by indicting my own.
Apologies on making you read so much about what the word faith doesn’t mean or, at least, what it shouldn’t. In future weeks, I hope to say more about how the meaning of this word is on the move again and will be over the next century, how it will marry together a very old understanding with a very new one, and why this is good news for a world brought to tears by culture wars, prejudice, poverty, and suicide bombers.
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Grace and Peace,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.
How Castle Church is stirring up a new spirit in the church from a brewery in Orlando, FL.