To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We see what we want to see … or, at least, what we’ve learned to want to see—from family and friends, from heroes and mentors, from the culture at large, or whichever online echo chambers we inhabit. Reading the Bible can be like that. We’ve all got our biases and quirks. We highlight passages that seem important to us, because they seem important to us. In an achievement-driven, hyper-individualistic culture like ours, it’s no coincidence that we hear lots of, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” in postgame interviews and Oscar acceptance speeches, but not so much, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands.”
Which brings me to the final flaw of fundamentalist biblicism: it encourages people to presume the purity of their own interpretive motives, all while holding other interpretations (and interpreters) in suspicion—maybe even contempt—which is exactly the kind of thing Augustine warned against. “Pride,” he called it: “A distorted love of one’s own excellence.” Think about it: If you can only trust your personal take on the text, if nobody is sufficiently qualified to challenge your interpretation, what does that say about your (inflated) opinion of yourself? About your willingness to listen, collaborate, empathize, and hold space for other human beings? To risk being misunderstood, or risk being wrong? How can you love your neighbor without ever trusting them?
There’s an old story about a monk who was tempted by the devil. Disguised as an angel of light, Satan appeared to him in a vision, saying, “I am the archangel Gabriel, who gave insight and understanding to the prophet, Daniel; who heralded the birth of John the Baptizer; who visited Mary, the virgin, and revealed to her the coming of the Lord. And now, I have been sent to deliver unto you a message of the utmost importance, which you alone have been found worthy to receive.” After a brief pause, the young monk replied, “I’m sorry that you’ve come all this way, but I think you must have me confused with someone else.” And with that, the devil fled.
Different story, (possibly) same monk: once, in an effort to further his spiritual instruction, the monk joined a company of clergymen on pilgrim- age to see an esteemed elder, Antony of Egypt. As soon as they arrived, Antony began reading Scripture passages aloud, asking his visitors to explain what he was reciting. One by one, they rattled off their interpretations, none to Antony’s satisfaction. This went on for some time, until finally Antony read one last passage. Turning to our humble hero, who had yet to speak, Antony asked, “What do you think it means?” The young monk answered, “Father, I do not know.” Then a smile came across Antony’s face, and he said, “This one has found the true way, for he said, ‘I do not know.’”
What’s the moral of the monk stories? Simple: he who presumes to have a corner on holy truth is usually the least qualified to speak on it. And the converse is also true: humility is usually a sign of spiritual depth and maturity. It’s like the Scriptures say: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” That’s why the young monk is the hero: because he’s humble. His greatest strength is his weakness. He knows that he doesn’t know. It is this very attribute, this utter lack of pretense, that puts the devil to flight.
Jesus never said, “Blessed are the self-confident.” He said, “Blessed are the humble,” and he meant it. Better to be the young monk than the religious know-it-all who’s just a little too sure of himself. John of the Cross called this kind of arrogant religiosity “secret pride.” You know the type: ultra- confident, super-spiritual, high on zeal and low on humility, always wanting to teach rather than be taught, always wanting to talk about spiritual things. We all know those kinds of people. In fact, some of us are those kinds of people.
“I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus said. As soon as any individual or institution claims to possess holy truth, it ceases to be holy, becoming something altogether different—an “it,” sterile and stale, a thing among other things, a tool to be used at our discretion and for our own self-serving purposes (e.g,. as ammunition for an ideological argument, a bullet point on our religious resumes, or a medal to pin on our puffed-out chests). More than just obnoxious, “secret pride” can be downright dangerous. What is arrogant religiosity, if not a “distorted love” of one’s own moral or theological excellence? It’s an intoxicating feeling. Addictive, even. Nietzsche was right when he warned, “Those who feel ‘I possess Truth’— how many possessions would they not abandon in order to save this feeling! What would they not throw overboard to stay ‘on top’—which means, above the others who lack ‘the Truth.’”
Augustine addressed this very issue in his Confessions. Like Nietzsche, Augustine cringed at the notion of “possessing” the truth, as if it were a piece of “private property,” amenable to human direction and control: “For your [God’s] truth does not belong to me nor to anyone else.” Augustine saw a real danger in arrogant interpreters who “love their own opinion,” not because of its veracity or potential benefit to others, “but because it is their own.” Karl Barth called it “religious mischief,” and it’s a temptation to which none of us is immune: “Experience becomes the enjoyment of itself, satisfaction it itself, and its own goal . . . The human has taken the divine into its possession. He has put it [God] under his management.” So take heed, fellow pilgrim, and beware the mischievous, arrogant interpreter—especially when that arrogant interpreter happens to be you.
Praise For Idiot, Sojourning Soul
“I love how Rosolino draws upon the great tradition and ancient sources for the contemporary church. This book is smart and also hilarious, engaging yet challenging. I found myself laughing out loud at moments and pausing in wonder and worship at others. Highly recommended!”
—Tish Harrison Warren, author, Liturgy of the Ordinary
“Thank God for Justin Rosolino, who confronts the oft-crippling theological myopia of American Christianity with this brilliant bit of reverent irreverence. Equal parts soulful memoir, astute biblical exegesis, and how-did-we-get-here history lesson (but way more fun than any of that sounds).”
—Scott Teems, writer-director-producer, Narcos, Rectify, and That Evening Sun
“Rosolino’s poignant, pithy prose cuts creatively and incisively to the heart of matter. This intellectually robust, existentially vulnerable work asks, ‘What in the world was Jesus up to, and does it (still) matter in our world?’ … I heartily commend this new book from a fresh voice to you and am already looking forward to his next project.”
—Todd D. Still, Dean and Professor, Baylor University, Truett Seminary
“In Idiot, Sojourning Soul Justin Rosolino never plays it safe. With a historian’s intellect, a hyper-honest wit, and all ten fingers on the pulse of pop culture, Justin recounts his own unsugarcoated exploration into Christian faith. He methodically lays out for even today’s skeptic the outrageous claims of Jesus and his followers, and simultaneously dares modern Christians to bravely rethink how and what we claim to believe.”
—Chris Rice, recording artist
“This is the book all of us needed in high school, or college, or yesterday. Justin Rosolino is everyone’s favorite teacher, shooting straight, but also listening.”
—Harrison Scott Key, author, Congratulations, Who Are You Again? and The World’s Largest Man: A Memoir
About the Author
Justin Rosolino is an accomplished musician and educator. A native New Yorker, Justin graduated from the University of Virginia at the top of his class, only to forego a conventional, white-collar vocational path in favor of a career in music (and its natural corollary, poverty). Justin later earned a masters in theology from Vanderbilt. He now serves as dean of a classical school in Texas.