- 2018Jan 17
Most readers of this site will share my angst about biblical illiteracy. I think we sometimes assume, though, that this illiteracy is simply a problem in the broadest sweep of cultural Christianity. It is there, to be sure. That’s why Christian bookstores (or their digital equivalents) don’t sell many books on the meaning of justification in Galatians, but tons of books with diet tips from Ezekiel or channeled messages from heaven. The problem, though, is far bigger than that.
I’ve never really known how to identify the scope of the biblical illiteracy facing us until I read this past weekend a sentence that perfectly articulated what I had noticed, in David Nienhuis’ very helpful new book A Concise Guide to Reading the New Testament(Baker). Speaking of the students in his college New Testament classes, Nienhuis writes that they struggle with the biblical material “because they have been trained to be Bible quoters, not Bible readers.”
He is exactly right.
Nienhuis locates part of the problem in the way higher criticism has sought to remove the Bible from the terrain of the church to the alleged expertise of those able to discern the “original context” in ways novel to the reading of the church through the ages. But the problem goes beyond this, he notes. The problem is also the way the Bible is used in churches.
“Some of my students attend popular non-denominational churches led by entrepreneurial leaders who claim to be ‘Bible believing’ and strive to offer sermons that are ‘relevant’ for successful Christian living,” he writes. “Unfortunately, in too many cases, this formula results in a preacher appealing to a short text of Scripture, out of context, in order to support a predetermined set of ‘biblical principles’ to guide the congregants’ daily lives. The only Bible these students encounter, sadly, is the version that is carefully distilled according to the theological and ideological concerns that have shaped the spiritual formation of the lead pastor.”
I would say the problem goes far beyond non-denominational churches, or even entrepreneurial churches, as biblical interpretation in American evangelicalism tends to be trickle-down, from the entrepreneurial ministry pioneers to everyone else.
Here’s the end-result according to Nienhuis: “They have the capacity to recall a relevant biblical text in support of a particular doctrinal point, or in opposition to a hot spot in the cultural wars, or in hope of emotional support when times get tough. They approach the Bible as a sort of reference book, a collection of useful God-quotes that can be looked up as one would locate words in a dictionary or an entry in an encyclopedia.”
He continues: “What they are not trained to do is to read a biblical book from beginning to end, to trace its narrative arc, to discern its main themes, and to wonder how it shapes our faith lives today.”
This is not a matter of the educated versus the uneducated. The same problem exists among both. I have noticed people who were experts in the grammar of the Hebrew and Greek Bibles who didn’t really get the flow of the old, old story. If the Bible, though, is God’s Word, and it is, we must raise up people who don’t merely believe the Bible but also who know what it says.
The answer is not easy. Part of the problem is what Nienhuis mentions, the modeling of the use of Scripture in some teaching and preaching. Part of the problem is the larger cultural question of whether the distracted, fragmented modern mind any longer has the attention span to read a text (meaning a literary text, as opposed to a text message). And part of the problem is that in order to train people to read their Bibles, the church must be gathered more than just an hour or two a week. To engage with a narrative requires (pardon this metaphor, my paedobaptist friends) not just a sprinkling but an immersion in the text.
Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/Halfpoint
- 2018Jan 09
Some Christians might be confused watching coverage of the demonstrations in Iran. Many in the West identify the problem with the mullah-led government of Iran as not merely dictatorship but “theocracy.” These wondering Christians likely recognize that Iran’s authoritarian Islamic regime is wrong, yet they might wonder why we would use the word “theocracy” pejoratively. After all, the word simply means “rule by God.” Shouldn’t we aspire, they might ask, to just that: governments ruled by God?
Theocracies are awful and abusive, not only because they oppress human beings but because they also blaspheme God. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens calls Iran a “klepto-theocracy,” meaning that the claim to divine authority there is used to financially fleece their own people of money and property. That’s true, but it also is true of every theocracy.
To see why, a Christian does not need simply to look at the historical and sociological data on how these theocracies harm their own people; we can also see clearly why this is the case by looking at our own gospel. The central claim of the gospel is that, as the Apostle Paul put it, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim. 2:6). God rules and reigns through his Word, and his Word tells us that now is the time of God’s patience, when all people everywhere are called to repent of sin and find mercy in Christ (2 Pet. 3:9-10).
Does God intend to rule the entire universe, with his will done “on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10)? Yes, but this kingdom is found in Jesus Christ, not apart from him. Jesus is the one anointed to rule over the cosmos, and anyone else who claims this is a pretender to the throne. Jesus himself has told us that in this time between his kingdom’s inauguration and his kingdom’s fulfillment, he is gathering a church of redeemed people, making a clear distinction between the church and the world (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
Our call to the world at this point, Jesus tells us, is not to uproot the “weeds” in the garden (Matt. 13:29). We also are not to grab the sort of power that would cause people to pretend as though they were part of God’s kingdom—a kingdom that comes through the transforming power of the Word upon the heart—when they are merely cowering before earthly power. Our power comes by the open proclamation of the truth, not by the clattering of the sword (2 Cor. 4:2-3).
Jesus told us to beware those who claim messianic authority between his first and second comings. He will come to us the next time not through some person or committee claiming authority from God, but with obvious, indisputable, and unrivaled glory in the eastern skies. What is hidden now, seen only by faith, will be revealed then, perceived by sight.
Those who claim earthly rule now by divine appointment are, according to Jesus and his apostles, frauds. That’s true whether they are seeking a murderous rule over a nation, or whether in a more benign setting they are trying to use God’s Word to snuggle up to the local powers-that-be by promising a “Thus saith the Lord” in exchange for a place at the table. This is a claim to speak where God has not spoken. God has made clear, repeatedly, what he thinks of such (Ezek. 34:7-10).
When you hear a preacher on television tell you some “secret revelation” that God has made known to him or her, watch your wallet. Behind that, there’s usually a ploy for your money or your power. The result of this sort of fraud is not just the manipulation of countless people, but the tearing apart of the name of God himself. This will be addressed at Judgment Day. That same tendency is magnified by violent and authoritarian regimes that claim to speak for God, so that they cannot be questioned for their morality or their competence. They are always, in every situation, oppressive because they wish to use God’s glory and God’s authority without God. Behind all of that is idolatry, the worship of the gods of this age: financial gain or political power or sexual pleasure.
God has told us how to come into his rule: by following the self-sacrificial way of the crucified Christ. That entails a call to carry the gospel to the nations, not to subdue them for our own gain. That entails a call to consciences to hear and to receive the gospel, not to run over consciences with threats of death or of loss of money. Theocracies are terrible, because the god behind them is the root of all the horrors of the present age: a depraved humanity pretending to be divine.
This article originally appeared at russellmoore.com. Used with permission.
Photo credit: ©Thinkstock/arsenisspyros
- 2018Jan 02
On my desk where I do most of my work there stands a Charlie Brown bobblehead figurine. I take that little comic strip figure very seriously because he kept me in ministry on two very different occasions in which I was ready to quit. Here’s why.
The first time was very early in my ministry, when I found myself in a deep depression after seeing things about the underbelly of church life that I wished I had never seen: hypocrisy, backbiting, cover-up, and Darwinian power politics. I didn't even go to church one night, knowing that the congregation I was a part of at the time was scheduled to erupt in some bitter fight. I sat home wondering whether, based on what I now knew about human depravity (including my own), I ever even wanted to go to church again, much less to serve in church ministry. I turned on the television for some background noise to quiet my mind, just as the opening credits started playing for A Charlie Brown Christmas.
I had seen this program so many times as a child that I could probably stage every scene by memory from that sickly little tree to the kids dancing to the amazing jazz soundtrack to watching for Pigpen’s cloud of dust in the background. I was expecting the usual “lesson” from the show—as from every children’s show—about the “true meaning of Christmas” being about more than commercialism, sandwiched between, of course, commercials. But then there was Linus.
The cartoon figure of Linus appeared on the stage, dressed as a shepherd, complete with blanket headdress. He recited Luke 2, on the announcement of the birth of Jesus to sheepherders in Galilee. I had heard this countless times, more accustomed to these words than Schroeder was to Beethoven.
But at that moment, there was something about hearing the words, in the King James Version, as old and familiar to me as my own security blanket: “And the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.” It hit me that this was my problem: I was sore afraid. It hit me also that what I was hearing was the glory of the Lord. Even though the words I was hearing were mediated at the moment through, of all things, a cartoon child, they still had their force. The story was more than just a story. The story was true.
I really believe that God used that moment to lift me out of my fear and anxiety and despair, and to pick myself up to preach again the tidings of great joy.
More than twenty years later, I faced another awful season. I had seen even worse sin and hypocrisy and power politics than I had ever imagined as a twenty-year-old. I was ready to do something else with my life. More than that, I was angry and sad, in ways that reached deeper than such things ever had before. Despite the fact that all I wanted to do was to hide beneath the covers somewhere, maybe for years, I had a job to do. I had to do a filming with my friend Randall Goodgame about, of all things, silliness in teaching children to memorize Scripture. On the way to the set, I listened, for about the millionth time, to my favorite song by Randall, his homage to the Peanuts. What struck me was a line about Schroeder on that piano: “He played like Harry Truman, without those Coke bottle glasses that only Marcie wore; like Harry Truman, without the atom bomb, without the burden of a third world war.”
It struck me that I did indeed feel like a war-weary Harry Truman, cradling my own personal nuclear football, wondering whether Lucy would yank it away from me just in time. The imagery is perfect. The joy of Schroeder was that he played the piano, as Truman did, but he played it not with the fake, display-exuberance of an old man weighted down with decisions. He played as a child, for the sake of the music itself, and thus with joy.
In that moment, I realized that I was approaching the ugliness I was watching the way a wartime President would, protecting my vulnerabilities with my weaponry. I could smile and play on command, but none of that would be real. My path to joy, it seemed to me, was to embrace the childlikeness of faith, to ignore the carping on the other side of the metaphorical piano, and to re-enter the joy of my calling, as one who has nothing to prove and nothing to lose.
At the filming, Randall asked three of us—an Anglican priest, a Presbyterian pastor, and me, to talk about children and the Bible while sitting in a children's Sunday school room, building Lego sets and mashing together Play-Doh as we talked. At one point, he asked us to talk while swinging on the swing-set outside. At first, I thought this was too silly for me to do. And then I remembered that song, and my need to come before God not as a public intellectual but as a dependent child. I don’t think I’ve ever had more fun coloring dinosaurs with crayons than while talking about the authority of the Bible.
I left that place laughing, but also with a new resolve to recommit to my calling, to fight spiritual warfare not with the obligation of a slave but with the freedom of a child, with the security of an heir (Rom. 8:16-17). I would be Schroeder at the piano, not Truman in the war room. And I haven’t, so far, looked back.
The Charlie Brown figurine is there to remind me that the most liberating truths I’ve heard didn't come to me from august heroes of the faith but from unexpected, childlike places, just like where I heard them in the first place. And it reminds me that what it takes to jostle me into wondering at great joy can sometimes be some good grief.
You’re a good man, Charlie Brown.
This article originally appeared at russellmoore.com. Used with permission.
Publication date: January 2, 2018