Thursday, February 01, 2018

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life: Popular Methods of Avoiding the Bible

(Please note: the following is not entirely serious--it is written in the style of a satirical self-help book, somewhat in the tradition of C. S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, that offers insight and encouragement in the life of Christian holiness by having my fictional narrator, who wants to adhere to the most popular form of Christian practice, advise the opposite.)

How to Be Miserable in Your Christian Life

Chapter Two: How to Deal with the Bible
(Section One: Popular Methods for Avoiding It)

In the previous chapter, I mentioned that Bible reading is one of the forms of spiritual reading that you should avoid. In this chapter, I’ll explain a little about why that’s the case, and give a few helpful tips for how to navigate your way through the dangers of the Bible. Of course, as a Christian, you can’t really get away from the Bible completely, but there are a few classic tricks you can use to be able to ignore certain aspects of Scripture, even while convincing everybody around you that you’re a devoted Bible student.

Fundamentally, the problem with the Bible is that it doesn’t recognize my right to live the way I want to live. This was clearly an oversight, since we know from our modern culture that my personal right to choose my own lifestyle is the most important thing of all. Strangely, not only does the Bible not recognize this most basic of enlightened principles; it sometimes appears to disagree entirely. Instead of insisting on my right to choose my own lifestyle, it instead insists that my highest dignity is in conforming myself to the glory of God’s image, my created heritage. That may sound nice and all, until you realize that putting our image-of-God identity into practice actually requires letting God change the way we are right now, and replacing it with the way He thinks we’re supposed to be. Doesn’t sound quite so nice anymore, does it?

The Easiest (and Most Popular) Method 
The best way to navigate the dangers of the Bible is not to put much effort into reading it. Most Christians are told that they should read the Bible regularly, and many do. But another very popular option is just to have a whole bunch of Bibles around your home, and then forget to spend any time reading them. Just make sure that you treat it like a chore, like one more thing to get done on your daily checklist of annoying little tasks, and I can almost guarantee that you won’t end up putting much time into it.

You’ll still be exposed to some Bible reading and teaching in your church life. But it’s not too hard to let your mind drift off to lots of other things in the middle of a sermon, so you don’t have to worry too much about that. Sermons are marvelous times to think about what you’ll have for lunch, or about a football game, or about what the weird people in the other pew are wearing. You don’t actually have to pay attention to the Bible during that time; and if you don’t, you’ll be well on your way to our common goal.

The side benefit of this method is that it also gives you a healthy dose of guilty feelings. If you believe that you should be reading your Bible, but never actually do, then you’ll probably be pretty good at recognizing what a miserable failure you are at the Christian life. But remember, that’s what we’re going for! Misery is the way Christians are choosing to live their lives right now, and if you want to be a part of it, there’s almost no better way than to avoid the Bible while beating yourself up for it.

Cherrypick the Promises 
But what if, despite all your good intentions for letting your Bible reading slip through the cracks of your daily life, you still find yourself reading it from time to time? The good news is that many Christians have, over the years, developed methods for “cherrypicking” from the Bible—that is, a handy way to pay attention to the parts that you like, while ignoring the parts that you don’t. The truth is, most Christians do this already, even if they don’t realize it. We humans just have a natural tendency to gravitate to the things that make us feel good, and to gloss over the hard bits and the pieces we don’t understand.

One of the most popular ways to do this is to focus on God’s “promises,” usually by taking those promises completely out of context. If you’re willing to ignore context (as I think you probably should), then you can just pull out all the nice things that God says he will do for Abraham, or King David, or ancient Israel, or the church as a community, and then apply them directly to yourself as an individual. And a lot of these promises are really sweet! They offer hope and joy and peace and love, promises of future blessings by the truckload. There’s almost nothing better for creating a positive, warm-and-fuzzy feeling in your heart. This is especially true if, as we mentioned before, you diligently ignore the context, especially if the context makes those promises dependent on your behavior.

It’s wonderful that we live in a culture where Bible resources like these are readily available to you, so that you don’t even have to do the work of cherrypicking. We have cards and handbooks and whole versions of the Bible that are devoted to drawing attention to these great and wonderful promises of God. Such things have actually done a great deal of good in many people’s lives, and even brought them closer to God, but if you’re able to use them with an eye for blindly ignoring a promise’s context, then it can keep the Bible from ever challenging the way you live. And that’s a tremendous asset.

It hasn’t always been this way, though. Once upon a time, people actually cherrypicked the challenging parts of the Bible instead of the easy ones. Your author once came across a dusty old book from more than a century ago: The Shining Way, written by a Baptist minister named Henry V. Dexter. It was a lovely compendium of Scripture passages. But here’s the truly appalling thing—instead of a collection of promises about what God was going to do for me, this book was a whole collection of verses about “duties” that Christians were supposed to do toward God, toward our neighbors, toward our families, etc. Talk about a downer! It took the hardest parts of the Bible, the parts that would actually require me to change the way I was living, and obscenely tried to slam all of those things together between two covers. Reading it was rather like entering a boxing ring and facing an opponent while your hands are tied behind your back. I’m glad we’ve moved on from obedience-centered views of the Bible, and have come to something more appealing to our modern sensibilities.