Friday, August 30, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: Not Even Once Through

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

Immanuel Can: I recently came across this quote, which might be worth a little back-and-forth:

“My wife and I are both voracious readers (two to three books a week), so there is little of intellectual interest that I do not enjoy. And of course, the Bible is perhaps the single most interesting book ever written, though it's not really ‘a’ book, is it? I have long been bewildered by the fact that so many people claim the Bible as their authority, but have never bothered to read, much less study it, even once, all the way through. Doesn’t that amaze you?”

Tom: Doesn’t that amaze me? Well, it does and it doesn’t ...

What We Claim to Believe

IC: So here’s an agnostic wondering why we Christians don’t read a book we claim to believe and live by.

Tom: It’s a valid question. I guess I can’t pretend to be all that shocked. We have denominational pastors writing books about how we should be “detaching from” the Old Testament, which is a hop and a skip from saying “Don’t bother with it at all,” and Christendom absorbs it without a ripple. There is definitely some serious ignorance out there ...

IC: It’s not just the OT, either. It’s most of the NT. Apparently the Gospels, Acts and Psalms are the most read books, by far. In some cases, even these are only known second hand, as in “That’s something my pastor or Sunday School teacher talk about, and that’s how I know about it.” I have not, in many years, heard some purported leader or teacher say much about the role and necessity of individual daily Bible reading, or of considering the whole counsel of God in the Bible. It may be taken for granted by these leaders that it’s happening, but I suspect that’s unjustified.

Confession Time

Tom: Confession time. I figure I’m just now into double figures reading the Old Testament through, and I’m less than a decade from retirement age. I’m probably closing in on twenty times through the New. But I’m regularly sickened at the thought that I wasted almost a decade of my life reading inconsistently and studying, well ... frivolously. Everything about my life and faith would have been better if I had paid more attention to daily reading of scripture. Everything. And based on what I pick up each time through, I know that six to ten more trips through the Bible would only have been a huge positive for me and everybody else in my life. But that time is gone now. It was spent on other things than now matter very much less to me, and I can’t ever get it back.

So when I find a person who claims to be a follower of Jesus Christ who doesn’t have a time and place to read God’s word every day of his life, I think they are just missing out in a huge way. But I hate to have to hear how bad it is from an agnostic. Do you think he’s right?

IC: Honestly? Yes, I do.

Tom: That’s a crying shame, but I’m not saying you’re wrong. What makes you think that?

IC: I’m judging by what I see. I see people who have very little knowledge of scripture generally, and almost no knowledge of the Old Testament.

Now, maybe I’m wrong. We’d have to check surveys to confirm. But my impression is that the state of general Bible knowledge among evangelicals is not what it was in my youth.

Tom: Fair enough. That’s certainly my impression, and the more recent polls bear it out too.

So Wrong, So Fast

But we had generations of serious evangelical attention to the word of God, so much so that fundamentalists were frequently accused of getting way too granular with the text of scripture. What changed, IC? Why are we suddenly staring at a generation that can make bizarre and untrue statements about the Bible, and nobody shows up to contest what they are saying?

IC: It takes one generation to forget everything that “we” knew about scripture. Without constant refreshment, the general knowledge of theology, scripture and church practice just evaporates.

Tom: That’s well and good, IC, but how do we change it? Is there anything going on in evangelicalism today that would encourage any kind of turnaround? Or are we doomed to generation after generation of so-called Christians who don’t actually do anything the Bible commands because they’ve never read it?

IC: That’s an excellent question.

A great Bible teacher I knew once asked me the question, “How far down the road to (he named a southern city) to get to (a northern city)? I take his point here. Sometimes just keeping going the way you are is not ever going to get you to where you need to be. Sometimes a little course adjustment won’t do. Sometimes the direction you’re going is so wrong that nothing but a complete reversal has any hope of success at all.

We’ve got to pick up our Bibles again, and get serious about knowing them.

Laymen in the Pulpits

Tom: One very obvious way to encourage that would be to fire all the pastors and fill the pulpits with week after week of conscripted “laymen”. For a minimum of a year, until serious changes are observed. It’s not going to happen, but it would (1) force the men so drafted into the Word, and (2) oblige their critics (of which there would instantly be thousands) to do the same in order to credibly contradict them. The quality of teaching might go down for a bit, but the shock to our systems would make it worth it.

I hate to beat an old drum, but it’s the professionalization of Bible teaching that has ruined congregation after congregation in our day. It was simply not that way in the first century. With the exception of the apostle Paul, the people interpreting the existing scripture with the greatest authority — not to mention writing new scripture — were fishermen, tax collectors and political radicals, not trained scholars.

IC: Yes, I’ve seen that. As soon as the professional comes in, there’s a strong tendency to leave all the spiritual thinking to the paid expert. And he welcomes that, because otherwise, what are they paying him for? He needs to justify his existence, so the more everyone has to rely on him, the less he has to fear for his security. He begins to control everything, so as to prove that his salary is a good investment. And he fears knowledgeable others, because they may erode his position.

What that then means is that there’s less and less incentive for the ordinary Christian to know his or her Bible. They are there to follow: the pastor’s there to lead. Knowledgeable Christians become a threat to the clergy, and have no place to serve in the congregation. So there is an actual disincentive for individual Christians to learn beyond a certain minimal level. And we see the results.

Looking for a Conversation

Tom: Coming back to the original quotation, here’s an agnostic who’s willing to talk, but has found that not only are there few Christians equipped to debate him intellectually, but that many Christians are less familiar with the material they claim is the basis of their lives and worldview than he is. I find that tremendously sad. It’s not necessary or expected that all Christians be theological-debating colossi, but surely if we claim to be followers of Jesus, we can give the word of God a fraction of the time and respect he gave to it.

IC: The man wasn’t really looking for an argument, either. He was interested in talking about what Christians believed, and just wanted to know he was talking with somebody who had read the Bible and had some basic thoughts about it — not a hugely high standard for a conversation partner, really. I don’t think he was looking for anything any ordinary Christian should be unable to do.

Tom: This is the thing. No agnostic looking for a conversation expects a Christian layperson to be John Lennox — assuming they had any idea who John Lennox is — but it is not unreasonable to expect those who claim the Bible is the truth, the ultimate authority in their life and the means by which they have come into an eternal relationship with the living God to show a pretty avid interest in its contents. That’s true no matter whether one prefers reading, listening to audiobooks, or regularly discussing the word of God with other believers.

Bearing Witness

If as Christians we can’t even be bothered to familiarize ourselves with the source of the truths we claim to believe, I think we need to ask what business we have telling the world we are followers of Christ, and whether there is even any substance to that claim.

IC: Yes. A “witness,” as I have said before, is not somebody with all the answers, but someone who can genuinely speak about what he himself has seen or experienced. If we have an authentic relationship with God, we ought to be able to tell others about that. And the value of reading scripture is not to become skilled at clever apologetics or pick up evangelistic tricks, but to be able to say how the Bible has been helpful in meeting Christ and in living for him.

That’s witness. That’s all it is. That’s all it needs to be, and all it really ought to be, if honesty is our principle.

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