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Friday, December 15, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Picking and Choosing

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Hmm, this smells like clickbait … or deliberate provocation.

An Amy Julia Becker blog post from early 2015 suggests Christians should scale back our New Year’s Resolutions and quit trying to read the Bible cover to cover.

Tom: Mrs. Becker wonders about the helpfulness of reading the Bible in its entirety and practically brags about not having read Nahum “in ages”. You can almost feel the calculated poke in the eye to Christians committed to getting through the whole Bible annually as she adds, “Perhaps you’ll join me”.

Thanks but no thanks.

Toward More Focused Bible Reading

But tell me, what do you think, Immanuel Can? Do any of Mrs. Becker’s arguments for more focused Bible reading have merit?

Immanuel Can: Well, one thing she says is, “broad reading can also lead to a deceptive sense of accomplishment rather than to an encounter with the Spirit of God who has inspired these writings.” I wonder what she means. I would argue you can’t have any kind of spiritual or existential “encounter” from something you haven’t even bothered to read in the first place. The depth of your encounter is bound to be limited by how much you’ve read, is it not?

Tom: Indeed. I think she means that people should still read, but concentrate on certain parts of the Bible at the expense of others. I think it’s Luke she says she reads through almost every year. But that still means her “encounter[s] with the Spirit of God” are limited to Luke plus whatever else she reads, which she says is primarily the Gospels and the Psalms.

A Collection of Aphorisms

IC: Then it would seem certain she’s not spending much time on context, but more on treating the Bible as a collection of aphorisms and short stories that have no important connection to the larger pattern of teaching in scripture or to the general span of history, wouldn’t you say?

Tom: This is it. Without the historical framework of the Old Testament stories from Genesis to the end of Nehemiah, you have nothing with which to inform the content of the Psalms or prepare you for the Gospels. You’re just grabbing them in isolation and, dare I say, blind ignorance. This is especially true of Psalms. How on earth do you know what you can appropriate from them as a Christian and what you can’t without the rest of the Old Testament? Are you going to start singing passages from the imprecatory Psalms in church, or would you rightly recognize they are Hebrew to the core? Not to mention their sentiments are specific to a particular set of circumstances, whether you take that to be future or historical ...

Anyone who attempts to understand isolated parts of the Old Testament without the rest of it is like a man who sits down to assemble a jigsaw puzzle and begins by tossing half the pieces in the garbage.

Written For Our Edification

IC: If she’s diminishing the value of the OT, she’s being anti-scriptural. I’m thinking especially of what’s said about the Old Testament by Paul: “These things were written for our edification,” speaking of the relevance of ancient history to contemporary believers.

Tom: Absolutely. There’s a very good reason that Sunday Schools teach Genesis, Exodus, David and Goliath and Jonah. For one, when the Lord makes reference to them, it helps to know what he’s talking about.

But I suspect Mrs. Becker is only glib about this sort of knowledge because she’s had it piled on in her youth and takes what she knows for granted. It would be difficult to be so breezy about the value of Nahum’s prophecy or the legal instructions in Leviticus if one didn’t already have at least a surface understanding of what they contain.

Reading in Community

IC: Another thing I noted was her comment about the Bible being read “in community”. On the surface, that seems good: Paul tells us to give attention to the public reading of scripture, doesn’t he? But here she’s pulled a phony “either-or”. It’s not either we read together, or we read alone; it’s both. But she seems to run the idea of communal reading against the value of personal, devotional reading, doesn’t she?

Tom: I’m not a big fan of dismissing verses of scripture on the basis that they’re “cultural”, but you have to be a bit disconnected from history if you don’t grasp the fact that at least one good reason for Paul’s instruction to Timothy to give attention to public reading is that many in the churches of their day were either illiterate or didn’t have access to their own copies of the Old Testament. Public reading was the ONLY way they’d get the scriptures, whereas we have all sorts of options today. Moreover, Paul also tells Timothy with respect to handling the word of truth, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved”, which suggests individual study is also important. So as you say, she’s created a false dichotomy there.

Priorities, Priorities

Further, most Christians in the modern world read all the time. If you can justify taking ten hours out of your week for a detective novel or several hours a month to read the news or political commentary online, how can you explain not even bothering to glance at Nahum (which is three chapters long and takes all of twenty minutes to read at a snail’s pace) in so many years you can’t remember? What you’re saying is that you believe Nahum and other parts of scripture have less value to you than the trivial nonsense we all fill our heads with daily.

That’s one thing to decide for yourself. It’s another thing to teach it and encourage it, as she is doing here. At that point you’ve kinda got to call her on it.

IC: Well, another thing I’d like to call her on is her arbitrary personal distinction between “texts that tell the foundational story” and the rest of the scriptures, which she clearly rates lower. She says the Psalms of Israel are “foundational”, but somehow, at the same time, Leviticus isn’t. She clearly thinks that the entirety of the Minor Prophets and Jude don’t rate, and the epistles hardly get a mention. And compared to Luke, even three of four gospels are passed over by her. What are her criteria for that?

Unequally Profitable

Tom: Precisely. Now, I will give her this, IC: All scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness, as Paul tells Timothy. It does not follow logically from that statement that all scripture is equally profitable at every given moment in human history. So I agree with her that Nahum is probably less important to the Christian today than Luke. Nahum inveighs against the now-irrelevant city of Nineveh while Luke tells the story of the single most important human being in history. Nahum was indeed a significantly more useful book 2-1/2 thousand years ago than it is today.

But that does not mean it is unimportant. There are still useful lessons in Nahum to be learned, and I would argue they are in all probability more useful than 99% of what Amy Becker is currently reading outside of her morning devotions. Moreover, her casual attitude to the significance of much of God’s word makes me wonder if Mrs. Becker is sufficiently familiar with her Bible at a deeper level to be making the sorts of value judgments you’re talking about.

Defining “Foundational”

IC: It’s interesting that the Lord Jesus fulfilled 353 prophecies of the Old Testament — the part of the Bible she views as less important than the gospel of Luke — and relied on all of those for his verification as Messiah. Moreover, it’s noteworthy that there are 228 references to the Old Testament in the Gospels, including 58 of them in the book of Luke that she claims is “foundational”. So now she’s in effect saying that we really don’t need to understand all that Luke is talking about. It makes you wonder just how many verses are left in her Bible.

Tom: I agree. All scripture is profitable, and I’d rather not treat any of it the way she suggests treating Nahum, not least because we might not have a clue about the spiritual value of what we’re excising from our reading until we’ve made several passes through it at various stages of Christian maturity.

Still, keeping all that in mind, I do find it useful go completely through the New Testament more frequently than the Old, just because I feel a more urgent need for the direct church teaching of the apostles and repeated visits to the life of Christ. Currently I read a single chapter from the NT and a single chapter from the OT daily, twice through each. That takes me through the New Testament approximately 1.5 times every year, and through the entire Old Testament roughly every three years. But I don’t skip anything. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need my editing help. And that second read helps me catch a lot that I miss the first time through.

Truth Mining

What’s your preferred method? I don’t think we’ve ever discussed this …

IC: I’m two OT chapters and one NT chapter, with the NT twice, once aloud. I’ve found that reading aloud is a different way of making myself think carefully about what I’m reading. And as you say, it covers the whole written word of God in a year and a half or so. Like you, I’ve found that what you read in the OT has powerful links to the NT. I actually don’t think you can understand the NT very well at all if you don’t have a grasp of the rest of scripture.

Tom: You make a good point there: I tend to speed-read, which is fine for certain things but horrible for Bible reading. Reading aloud helps me shake the habit of glazing over the text and missing important things.

Back to the Grind

Look, I think I sort of understand where Mrs. Becker might be coming from. She doesn’t want Bible reading to become a grind, and says things like “God’s grace extends easily to those of us who haven’t memorized any verses lately and who can’t explain the inner workings of Habakkuk,” which is quite true, as is her assertion that prayerful contemplation of a few verses is more important than skimming chapters just to say you’ve done it. Who could argue?

IC: Personally, I like Habakkuk … a lot. That closing poem is absolutely amazing, and one of the most profound statements of trust in the Lord you could find in all of scripture. But she can have her druthers, I suppose.

Tom: Oh, I love it too. But I recognize there are people who are genuinely saved that will never take the time to enjoy it. And the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint. I read the whole Bible over and over because I’ve discovered that an ever-increasing familiarity with the whole counsel of God helps me immeasurably in that “prayerful contemplation” Mrs. Becker so values.

Diligence and Labor

IC: Sure. How can you learn to love someone you don’t really know? And how can we know God without first engaging with him through his word? Apart from his word, how would any of us know who he is at all?

Further, God has ordained that people who seek him are going to have to exert some effort to achieve it. There’s discipline in loving God … it takes real effort, and means pushing aside other things and obliging yourself to get down to it. The Bible tells us it will be that way: it’s those who “seek me earnestly” (or “early”) and those who “seek me with all their heart” that find God: not the folks who expect it to come without effort, without commitment and without struggle.

Tom: I agree; there’s work involved. But approached properly, Bible reading should not always be a chore. I’d hate to think too many of my fellow Christians feel that way about it. If it’s never anything more than hard labor when you pick up your Bible — if you don’t ever have those moments of pure delight when something you’re struggling to understand finally clicks into place — I think you’re probably doing it wrong. Getting below the surface can be hard work, but it’s also joyful work, and there’s tremendous benefit in it.

Maybe you need to consider things like the Bible on audio CD in the car when you’re on the road, or a change of translation, or a change of the time of day that you read, or whatever.

Who’s Calling the Shots?

IC: When we listen for the voice of God, we must be willing to hear what HE wants to say, not looking to hear only what we want — or find easiest — to hear. It’s all about who’s in charge of the process; is God calling the shots, or am I thinking he’s obligated to deliver to me only what I’m willing to receive at this moment? To listen to God is to be open to whatever he wants to say … even when I don’t always understand at first.

Tom: Right. For that reason, deliberately reducing one’s exposure to the entire word of God is never going to seem like a good approach to me.

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