A Canon or a Scalpel: A Few Thoughts on Christians and the Bible
Imagine that you live inside of a culture that trusts in the strengths of human beings more than anything else. Academics are heroes, of course. Innovators and scientists are “gods.” What would that sort of culture naturally expect a holy book to do?
This is a question we need to consider rather seriously because no matter what we believe about the validity of the Bible or the limitations of humans, you and I have grown up inside of a culture that has impressed its value system upon us almost daily since birth. Even if we think we have rejected the world's values, it’s likely that they have made a mighty, subconscious impression on our expectations of how the Bible works.
A culture that values science more than anything else will expect a holy book to function with the precision of a chemical or biological manual.
A culture that values linear arguments will expect a holy book to provide the ultimate seamless syllogisms.
A culture that values human ethics will expect a holy book to align with all that we have deemed humane and fair.
A culture that values literal truth will expect a holy book to provide fact-by-fact explanations of historical events.
A faith-oriented person living in a culture with such expectations is not likely to realize that his demands have a secular source at all. Societal values would be so pervasive in this situation, a believer would automatically assume that the same standards which drive science, reason, human ethics, and historicity would guide a God-given resource.
This is a vital assumption to recognize. Because if we come to the Bible expecting it to follow the standards and values of humanity, we have reduced it instead of elevating it. We have made it a slave to our demands instead of letting it exist as whatever God intended it to be.
In fact, the Bible describes the possibility of errors like this. In John 5:35-40, Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.“
In other words, there was a group of people who spent time picking apart the words of the text, looking for something so specific that they missed the living God when He appeared in person before them. Because of this direct teaching of Jesus, we see that it’s possible to be a student of the Bible while missing the intentions and presence of the God who provided it.
I want to be careful here, because I’m well aware of the dozens of heresies that arise when the authority of the text is challenged. So much damage has been done throughout the years by lessening our respect for God’s word. I believe the Bible is inspired, trustworthy, alive, and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (II Timothy 3:16).
But in the religious culture war that has grown to a head in the past forty years, Christendom has not simply worked to accomplish the training of Christians (as II Timothy describes), addressing the needs and questions of sincere disciples attempting to follow the Lord; it has striven to establish a faith-based domination of government. We do not primarily seek God as a counselor who pulls us out of the flesh to live Spirit-directed lives in our small communities, we want to know how to “win” cultural battles in the realms of gay marriage, abortion rights, and evolution.
Those goals immediately shift our expectations of the Bible.
They mean that instead of going to Genesis weary and seeking intimacy with a God who brings light and order from darkness and chaos, we must splice up Creation narratives to prove that Christianity is scientifically valid.
They mean that instead of reading severe passages of the Old Testament and emerging with a renewed sense of gratitude and holy fear for the wild, mysterious God who (for some reason) shows us mercy, we must wrangle with academic arguments about Middle Eastern slavery and mistreatment of women to prove that the God who forbids homosexuality is not a monster.
They mean that instead of reading the story of Jonah and recognizing that our biases don’t prevent God’s love for our least favorite demographic, we spend three hours Googling the digestive processes of super big fish.
Some of these consequences are inevitable because ideas run on trajectories. Leaders of the church and of the government have a great responsibility, juggling those trajectories. Besides, America has Christian roots (though perhaps not as many as David Barton has suggested), and it would be foolish to throw a good foundation away entirely.
But there are also valid arguments supporting C.S. Lewis’s warning about the establishment of a Christian political party in his essay, “Meditation on the Third Commandment.” Even back in 1941, Christians longed for a faith-based political seat from which they could attack the evils of the world.
Though this desire is understandable, it is not altogether safe. As Lewis writes:
“Whatever it [the Christian party] calls itself, it will represent, not Christendom, but a part of Christendom. The principle which divides it from its brethren and unites it to its political allies will not be theological. It will have no authority to speak for Christianity; it will have no more power than the political skill of its members gives it to control the behaviour of its unbelieving allies. But there will be a real, and most disastrous novelty. It will be not simply a part of Christendom, but a part claiming to be the whole. By the mere act of calling itself the Christian Party it implicitly accuses all Christians who do not join it of apostasy and betrayal. It will be exposed, in an aggravated degree, to that temptation which the Devil spares none of us at any time --- the temptation of claiming for our favourite opinions that kind and degree of certainty and authority which really belongs only to our Faith.“
This sort of distortion has impacted American evangelicalism deeply. I fear sometimes that we have become so invested in winning the big wars of our time, we have lost what the Bible was clearly most meant to do inside individuals and churches.
As someone who reads books very closely and very regularly, I have come to two conclusions about the Bible.
First, it would be impossible for the Bible to be entirely man-made. Though I have studied every major argument opposing my faith (scientific, ethical, literary) with relentless honesty, I have ultimately found that primary sources and historical verification have rendered each objection academically inadequate.
Even though the Bible is maddening and confusing at times, even though it is full of paradox and unsatisfying tensions, it also bears elements of validity that cannot be thrown away without throwing away basic human reason. Quite simply, if anything is true, the Bible has to be true.
But secondly, I don’t think the Bible was meant to do the work so many of us are trying to force from it of late. When we are more eager to use the Bible to do work “out there” than inside us, we make a grave error.
When we consider that 77% of Christian men are looking at porn monthly (55% of married Christian men) and 35% of Christian men are having affairs, it suddenly becomes evident why 80% of evangelicals could support a man like Donald Trump.
We have been conditioned to think that the “big important” issues of Christianity happen in the mechanics of national power— with "bad guys" like Muslims and progressives --instead of in the privacy of our homes, where with the clicks of our own thumbs, so many believing men repeatedly betray wives and little children.
We eagerly fight "villains" like Dawkins and Hitchens over the literality of the sun standing still in the book of Joshua, without letting the God who brings all the darkness to light inside us to engage with and conquer the enemies of our private souls.
We use the Scriptures a canon against opponents of Christianity-proper-and-political instead of letting it work like a surgeon's scalpel inside individual followers of Jesus.
We stay so focused on what dangers might befall Christianity in America, we fail to see what damage is growing inside Christians.
While I do think the wisdom of Christianity should impact government (as well as the wisdom of other worldviews, both secular and sacred), I think we should also be aware of the temptation to project the primary impact of our faith into secular power struggles instead of turning like children to receive the private indwelling of the living God. Certainly, the Bible focuses more on the latter than the former.
So in light of this, I wonder what would happen if we relinquished some of our distracting and desperate attempts to jump through the nervous hoops of humanism, all that proving and striving for footholds in the world, and simply let the living, active Word grow us as He has promised? After the scientific, historical, and literary questions about the Bible have been resolved in our own hearts, what if we let the Word of God change us before flailing it about like a wild blade, slashing off the ears of centurions in our fear and fury.
How sad I would be to get to the end of my life and hear my God say, "You searched the Scriptures, because in them, you thought you would find power to make your nation dominant. And yet here I was all the time, ready to fit you for specific work that I had prepared for your hands."
"You would have done so much more good if you had learn reliance. Your life could have knocked down dominoes but you were so busy conforming to the values of the world, you missed me. You fought so hard, and yet you won nothing at all. You said, 'Lord, Lord,' but you never knew me at all."