Last week, I was listening to several ministers respond to college students’ questions when a particular metaphor struck me. Regarding issues such as prayer and the question of gender in ministry, a few of the ministers spoke about “the lenses we bring to the Bible” and how our presuppositions often prevent us from recognizing what a certain chapter and verse actually means.
This comes as no shock to the majority of us. Christians, Jews, Muslims and even atheists the world over have encountered proof-texting in some form. It especially seems the natural pastime of many Bible-thumpers, to see how many random Bible verses they can apply to issues within our society today. These are the same people who say things in general conversation like, “I have a verse for you,” or even “God spoke to me this morning about you.”
Even mediocre English teachers are quick to correct students when they offer a sweeping analysis of The Great Gatsby‘s themes based on half a chapter, or when they attempt to interpret “Mending Wall” solely from the line, “‘Good fences make good neighbors.’” However, those scruples rarely find their way into Bible studies and small groups. Context is one of the first things to be rejected when it comes to the applying Scripture to one’s life. Most of the time, it’s just more convenient to jump straight to personal analysis.
There are numerous problems that are born of careless reading of the Bible, but perhaps the most pervasive is the damage done to a person’s theological mooring. If the words of Scripture are so easily manipulatable to any given situation, you can end up with an incredible spectrum of conviction when it comes to particular issues and divisive matters in one’s culture. It’s why you might see Westboro Baptist Church members picketing gay marriage on one side of city street, and find members of another local Baptist church standing on the other side of the street picketing the picketers.
There is much to protect when it comes to freedom of interpretation, but we must be careful how quickly we apply both the Bible and even fundamental theological arguments to our present situations. This has to do with those “lenses” I mentioned before. Christians are very often as guilty of bringing a pre-established assumption about life to their reading of Scripture as a high school freshman is to assuming Fahrenheit 451 is about literary censorship.
Over the past decade or so, we have been bombarded with evidence that the world in which we live seems to be grappling in the dark. Liberties are being stolen away and evil is on an unprecedented rise. We have multiple twenty-four-hour news networks that pour over the minutia of injustice and alleged tyranny. We spend hours and hours every week clicking around the Internet and reading comment section after comment section in which vitriol is spewed and conspiracies are blamed. We sit down with friends for coffee and spend the majority of our time complaining about federal encroachment, the decline of public schooling, the supposed threat to the institution of marriage, or any number of issues. Whether we are aware of it or not, all these things fill us with a deep sense of pessimism and distrust.
Christians believe solace can be found in reading the Bible and in prayer, but the irony of such disciplines is that we drag all of this angry, fearful baggage right into the middle of our times of study or meditation. We spend the vast majority of our weeks embroiled in all the problems and regrets of our society, and it becomes impossible to separate these worries from genuine times of theological reflection. Thus, what most often happens is that we turn our Bibles into a litmus test for our particular culture and give no thought to the extensive history that has unfolded since those scriptures were first spoken and later transcribed. Our times of prayer are saturated with begging God’s deliverance – for him to roll back this pervasive darkness that has apparently spread itself over every aspect of life.
It’s no wonder most people don’t see anything appealing about the Christian faith. On a day-by-day basis, how many of us exude authentic hope and unbiased joy?
In the song “Hopeless Wanderer” by Mumford & Sons, a repentant line rings out, “I will learn to love the skies I’m under.” Unfortunately, I think the concept of embracing the world we live in – actually loving it – seems an impossible task for many Christians. Why? Because we are beset on every side by voices crying BEWARE! and LOOK OUT! and DON’T TRUST HIM and THEY’RE COMING FOR YOU!. It takes a very centered person to hold all the fear-mongers at bay and truly keep the faith. It’s hard to transfer our faith away from a political ideology or an economic policy or a gun license. Solo fide in an all-knowing, almighty God is scarce these days.
I’ve written before about Mike Huckabee’s now well-known response to why the Sandy Hook massacre took place last December. His response is just another example of this kind of pessimism and the dangers of presuppositions when it comes to the Scriptures. Huckabee seems to believe that human lawlessness and the deletion of government-sanctioned prayer in public schools can effect the proximity and attitude of an almighty God. Many others who were emotionally swayed by his argument are quick to agree that the Bible reveals such terrible things can happen when people reject God. The logic seems to click – you kick God out of schools, God won’t protect you when you need him.
But a careful reflection on this thought process ends up making God look like the Little Red Hen who didn’t share her bread with the duck and the cat and the dog because they didn’t help her pick the grain and make the dough. It’s theological suicide. A person who believes this has, in their minds, effectively put to death an immovable God who perseveres in love, and has instead erected the idol of a vindictive, karmic god who has no qualms about people getting what they (apparently) deserve. Grace goes out the window. What is more, there is no evidence the God of the Bible ever acted in such a way or was ever willfully absent from any historical tragedy. In fact, the Old Testament prophets take great pains to communicate that in even the darkest and most violent moments in history, God is present and active.
Cleaning the Lens
So what do we do? How can we avoid such small-minded, misguided readings of Scripture? How do we free ourselves from pessimistic prayer? How do we treat the darkness we see in our world in a way that does not overshadow the hope we have in redemption and our responsibility in this “the ministry of reconciliation” (2nd Corinthians 5:18)?
Like many problems of addiction, the first step to solving the problem is admitting there is one. And Christian pessimism is certainly an addiction – a lifestyle that is difficult to escape. The second step would be to practice as much patience as possible, and to remind oneself that the news and the Internet and the complaints of other fearful people are mere opinions, and that truth is much bigger and goes much deeper than what they can touch. They will never acknowledge the full story of this life unless we limit ourselves solely to their pronouncements.
Finally, in addition to patience, we must seek to understand humility. Not just practice it, but understand what it is, at its core. And we must approach Scripture and prayer and even the most general of theological conversations with that healthy sense of humility. That meekness that acknowledges that we were never meant to be the end-all purveyors of truth, nor is God’s character meant to be interpreted solely by one culture in one time period other than the time of Jesus Christ on earth. If you’re going to start anywhere, start there.
And maybe, if we can calm ourselves and slow down, we will begin to see the true nature of a God who has, thankfully, never abandoned us to our waywardness. It turns out he’s been standing right beside us all the while.