When any believer says something that manifests a low or diminishing interest in that which is written, it concerns me on some level, and it might mean the cart has displaced the horse in some sense.
Things get hazy without something relatively objective to rely on. I don’t mean to downplay the aspect of faith that’s unseen. I do mean to emphasize the ancient scriptural texts over philosophical amalgamations we call “theology.” There will be a little more pertaining to the theological “cart” in the next post, but for now, let’s concentrate on the trustworthy steed of scripture.
Why might the horse get pushed to the back or even left out in the cold? Why might one denigrate or even disrespect scriptural text? It could be because of negative experiences with the misuse of scripture. That sort of thing could easily lead one to avoid attention to the Bible. On the flip side, some types of positive relational or conceptual experiences, however much they lack direct ties to scripture, can further distance people from what is written. “The love and encouragement I feel in my life is not because of Bible study. It’s because of the people and the Holy Spirit in my life” some might say, as they turn down an opportunity for Bible study. It’s not only touchy-feely folks who avoid good Bible study, though. A whole range of good people often turn up disenchanted.
It is primarily to those who want to move away from scripture (having been near it previously, in some measure) that I submit these thoughts. Any one of us, though, can come to distrust the use of the Bible because of misguided understanding or mistaken application. Or maybe we are simply tired.
First: In a way, I am one of you. I too find that so much churchy use of scripture results in little more than piles of verses, with little coherence, and even less valid applicability to the life of a disciple. It is often easy to find counter-examples to isolated scripture verses offered as “proofs,” and yet it is tiring to be faced with such situations repeatedly. Unfortunately, some public teachers and theologians tend (consciously or subconsciously) to use scripture in order to serve prefabricated, prejudicial constructs and agendas. It can be disconcerting and discouraging to be trapped within the irresponsible use of scripture. The whole enterprise can bring on personal fatigue. A few examples of my non-contextual experiences may be found here and here and also here, in a sarcastic video I once made in a fit of spiritual perturbation.
I’ve had better experiences with the Bible than most, I suppose. I grew up in a Bible-teaching church, and I learned the 10 plagues and the judges and the apostles and the books of the Bible in order. I attended a good Christian camp that encouraged memorization, and I learned portions of Acts 2, 1 Peter 2, and Romans 8, among many others. When I was 19, I got a wide-margin, leather-bound Bible that has oodles of cross-references and ample space to write more. A college teacher lit a fire in me with his relatively shallow but impressive memorized knowledge of verses that appeared to be related to one another. I’m grateful for all of that, but I don’t mourn the loss of the cross-reference habit. I haven’t penned in very many of those in more than a decade. So many of the ones I once wrote turned out to be wispy or even bogus “proofs.” Actually, I must say that some of my best teaching and self-directed learning have come more recently—primarily from outside churches per se. I should still memorize more (not a catechism, or a list of verses about a topic, but scripture).
Second: there is a better way. At every reasonable opportunity I have, I encourage focusing on the uninterrupted message of scripture, in its context. The disillusionment with Bible study comes when it is done badly, and that is all too often. But Bible study, I submit from personal experience, can be revealing, rewarding, enriching, energizing, and amazingly applicable. In order to “hear” God through the authors of scripture, the micro-context (e.g., a paragraph) should be noted first, and the mid-level and book-level contexts are also crucial. By “book-level” I mean each unique document titled as one “book” in the Bible, not the whole collection. The Bible is more aptly described as a library, not a single book, anyway.
Awareness of each biblical book’s unique setting is important as a foundation for better Bible reading and study. It is good to recognize, for example, that Matthew and Moses speak into vastly different scenarios although they treat some of the same topics. Philippians records Paul’s message to one group of people at a particular time, whereas Galatians is an entirely different letter, to different people, about different matters. For more on the situational nature of (much) scripture, please read this recent post.
The insights I am currently gaining from Galatians are very helpful to me as they shed light on the early period (roughly the 40s) when Christianity was still a new movement. My senses of (1) Paul and (2) what was going on with the early Phrygian/Galatian believers have grown deeper through focusing on the literary structure of the letter. Paul’s personal experiences are spotlighted for a purpose, and they may include a couple of veiled references (not just the obvious one) to his eyesight … and I am compelled to mention that my own eyes have filled with tears more than once over this in the last couple of months.
Early Christian believers wrote a lot of authentic texts—more than any other religious group of the time—and I think there is a reason for that. (See this post from Dr. Larry Hurtado for support.) The texts have much to teach us, and it is good to be aware of the whole corpus. But it is always advisable to deal with one scripture author and with one text at a time, not considering them as one whole. The fundamentalist-y method of taking all the Bible as one large conglomerate mass of stuff, conflating it as though it is all of equal significance, all written about the same situation, and all using language the same way, will send one irrevocably spiraling downward in a maelstrom of deep but thick theological messiness. First, I think we should take one book at a time, and maybe later, at some point, disciples can compare things here and there, but I’m not sure I’m capable of doing that very well yet. Most preachers in my experience do a marginal (or worse) job of using multiple texts in their spoken messages. Only a few seem able to handle the mixing very well. As for myself, I’d rather learn better how to be responsible with one text at a time. If we had all been taught this way from the get-go, we could have spent more time being disciples of Jesus, and living life in order to love others as He did. As a result, we could have spent less time striving to work through all sorts of issues that really weren’t there, at least to the degree they seemed to be. And some of us would be less tired.
I’m increasingly persuaded that most philosophical, existential, and theological ideas create more disagreements than agreements. At the very least, disciples should put the scripture horse up in front to lead the theological cart, not reversing the order. Dealing with one discrete scripture text at a time will offer strengthening of faith based on real evidence, not to mention enhancing insights for the ride along the path.
B. Casey, 7/31/17-8/20/17
Next: The Resolve Not to Think about Theology