One of the dangers of being recognized as an expert at something is that it becomes easy to believe your press clippings and then become lazy. Instead of continuing to press deeper into your field, you rely on your past knowledge and experience when dealing with the public. Most of the time, they never know the difference because your wealth of background on the subject far outweighs theirs. But sooner or later, if this mental laziness continues, it will one day show up in our work and at the very least leave us red-faced; even worse it may call into question our credentials as “go-to” consultants.
This week an opinion piece appeared in the “Faith and Values” section of Fox News Online. Entitled, Jonathan Morris: My Favorite Bible Verse, it piqued my interest. Jonathan Morris is a former Roman Catholic priest who voluntarily demitted his ordination last year.
For a number of years, he served as a consultant on religious matters for various Fox News Channel evening programs. I’ve always enjoyed his measured and balanced commentary, even when he had to dance carefully around controversial Vatican matters. So when I saw his piece promising to reveal his favorite Bible verse, I was intrigued.
He begins by throwing a bit of cold water on the whole practice of choosing favorite verses, arguing insightfully that the Scriptures are meant to be read and understood as a whole. To single out an individual verse for inordinate attention can skew our receptivity to the “whole counsel of God”, to use the words of the apostle Paul (Acts 20:27).
With this caveat in mind, he proceeds to acknowledge that there are a few verses that stand out for him, none more so than one which has guided him in this last year of “major life change” – Romans 12;2. It reads:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”
Morris rightly sees that this verse is concerned with discernment – discovering in the midst of the sculpting powers of an anti-God world how we can find the right path prescribed by our Heavenly Father. The key, of course, is by intentionally resisting the pressure to conform to the patterns of the world around us, and instead to surrender our thoughts and desires to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in tandem with the Word of God.
I believe that Morris has rightly captured the central meaning of this text. We are called to a supernatural transformation. But here our expert mischaracterizes (or undersells) the extent of this spiritual work. He writes:
“Transformation” is a strong word. The original Greek word for transformation is “metanoia,” meaning existential conversion. This spiritual conversion is not about changing our behavior out of shame or guilt. Conversion is a decision of the will to turn away from sin, do an about face, and walk toward God who is calling.
As an expert who quotes the “original Greek,” we are supposed to trust what he tells us. Unfortunately, in this case, Morris neglected to look at the Greek text of Romans 12:2, and apparently assumed he knew what word Paul was using to convey the idea of “transformation.” The word “metanoia” indeed means “repentance” or more literally” a “change of mind,” and can be construed as a kind of conversion. But it is too small a word to convey what Paul means here.
How do we know that? Because the Greek word that Paul actually uses is “metamorphousesthe”, from which root (metamorpho-) we get the noun “metamorphosis” in English.
The transformation Paul envisions is much like that envisioned by the use of the word metamorphosis in describing the process of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. “Metanoia” would describe the caterpillar’s decision to no longer think of itself as a caterpillar but now as a butterfly. “Metamorphosis” describes the caterpillars actual transition internally and externally from life as a caterpillar to life as a butterfly. It is a much more powerful word in this context than “metanoia.”
So, Paul’s exhortation to the Romans (indeed to all Christians) is that we not let the world shape us externally into its own mold (all the while achieving no positive result in changing our inner being – the Old Adam) but instead that we invite God to transform us from the inside out – to make us new creatures who resemble and reflect the New Adam, Jesus Christ. In this way, we will develop the spiritual faculties needed to rightly discern and enact God’s will for our lives.
Jonathan Morris is a smart man. It is no surprise that many turn to him as an expert on Christian matters. But in this instance, he is guilty of intellectual laziness. It is never a good idea to put in print something that exposes one’s ignorance, especially when that ignorance could have been avoided simply by doing a bit of exegetical work. Morris apparently fell into the trap of which we are all in danger – assuming that since we know more than the people we are teaching, we can skip the intellectual labor of preparation and just shoot from the hip. Many times that works out okay, even though we are robbing ourselves and our audience of deeper learning. But sometimes we are caught up short, revealing to the world that we have not done our homework.
Bluffing our way to an answer may be okay on a seventh grade short essay exam, but it fails miserably when presenting ourselves as experts in our chosen field of study or accomplishment. I still plan to read Jonathan Morris for the foreseeable future, praying this was just a one-time lapse. And I will take to heart this message personally, when I am called upon to offer whatever expertise I may be qualified to exercise on behalf of others. Experts, whatever your field — do your homework!