Monday, March 07, 2022

Anonymous Asks (187)

“What do you think of this app?”

In case any of our older readers have eyesight as dodgy as mine, I’d better describe what this inquisitive young fellow has sent me. We are looking at a small computer program you can download to your cell phone called Bible Study for your Mood.

The app consists of a series of black or gray buttons, each with a one-word emotional state on them: Anger, Anxiety, Depression, Faith, Courageous, Tired, Confidence, Hopeful, Peaceful, Helpless, Forgiven, Strong, Afraid, Love, Worry ... and so on. Pushing a button takes you to a Bible verse that corresponds with your current mood, and gives the relevant book/chapter so you can look it up and keep reading.

That last part is important.

How Am I Feeling?

Let’s leave aside the question of whether it is a good idea to pick out the passage for a Bible study by asking “How am I feeling right now?” Unless you suffer from some terrible mental illness, chances are most people will never hit more than five or six of those buttons on a semi-regular basis, and the ones you hit are not likely to take you to anything but the most basic verses that somebody thinks might meet a common need as they perceive it. Hit the “depression” button five straight days in a row, and I’m not sure what sort of encouragement you are likely to find.

Also, not to be unkind, but doesn’t making your emotions your primary reason to read the Bible seem a tiny bit narcissistic? Is it just possible God may have something to show me today that is not all about me?

Some of my best experiences in Bible reading have been from going through scripture in order day after day, so that each morning’s reading builds on the previous one. The fact that I was not doing the spiritual equivalent of flipping a coin every morning on the basis of how I felt when I woke up did not make my reading experience dry and unprofitable. Quite the opposite in fact: I have often found encouragement, blessing and strength for the day in places I never expected.

Made for the Market

Be that as it may, tools like this exist because there is a market for them. Many Christians are predisposed to read their Bibles as if they are going to a medicine cabinet and taking an aspirin: the cure for what ails you. Pull out a verse, apply it to yourself, feel better about your problems.

Needless to say, that is not how scripture was intended to be read. The best and most satisfied Bible students linger over the text like a five-course meal; they don’t pop verses like candy. The psalmist writes, “I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways.” That is exceedingly difficult to accomplish in a few moments of staring at the screen of an iPhone.

Going to the Bible as if it is a medicine cabinet is somewhere well down my list of bad ideas. I shouldn’t have to club you over the head with “a text without a context is a pretext” to make that point. People have been doing it for years, and it isn’t any better an idea in the computer world than it is when you pull a single verse out of its context and paste it on a calendar.

Unless young Christians know to whom a verse was originally addressed and what it is really talking about — and only looking at the context will tell you that — they are bound to find themselves totally confused by technology that breaks the Bible into discrete chunks of text on the basis of decisions made by Stephen Langton back in the 13th century. (Langton added chapter and verse divisions to what was then just running text. He later became Archbishop of Canterbury.)

Analyzing Thought Flow

Apart from the book of Proverbs, which for the most part is chock full of one-verse wisdom, understanding the meaning of a verse of scripture requires carefully following the thought flow of the writer, which means we need the text immediately before and after our verse of choice (and sometimes whole chapters in the immediate vicinity) to make a verse’s intended meaning clear.

You have probably heard the old saw about the man who selected two Bible verses at random. He read that Judas went away and hanged himself (Matthew 27:5) and followed it with “Go thou and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Understandably, he was not terribly satisfied with the experience.

The story has gotten a few polite laughs over the years. It’s a highly unlikely situation, but it makes the point. When we grab verses willy-nilly, there is a pretty good chance we will find ourselves reading someone else’s mail. What was true for a Jew in the time of David may or may not be true for me today. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, but he simply has not always dealt with humanity in precisely the same way. He deals with each of us as he finds us and meets our needs where we are, but I am not where Job was, or David, or Abraham. I’m not even at the same place in my thinking as you are.

Scary Verses Out of Context

How many Christians buy into the erroneous and self-defeating concept of mutual submission because they have never bothered to read the context of Ephesians 5:21?

How many poor Christians have agonized over the years about whether it was impossible for them to be “renewed again to repentance” because in their minds they had “crucified again the Son of God to their own harm” ... and all without having the slightest idea of the circumstances in which these verses were written or to whom they were intended to apply? My guess would be thousands, and the curative to their distress is context.

How many Christians believed John Piper when he told his readers and listeners “You are a true Jew. Don’t reject God’s good gift” solely on the basis of a misreading of Romans 2:29? The curative for the confusion Piper caused in Reform circles is reading in context.

How many discouraged Christians read “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith” and conclude Paul is talking about engaging in a subjective performance assessment, which in their own minds they fail? The curative is reading that instruction in its context.

On their own, these verses are all either confusing or scary. They need to be read the way their writers intended them to be read: as part of a whole expression of thought.

Look It Up and Keep Reading

Sorry, back to the app. I mentioned that the last part of the app’s description is important. The app “gives the book/chapter so you can look it up and keep reading” [emphasis mine].

That’s a crucial feature. I’m guessing most young Christians won’t bother doing it, which is a recipe for remaining a young Christian pretty much indefinitely. If by chance you do keep reading, however, you may get some minor value from a tool like this.

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