Or ‘what happens when we listen to people like we read the Bible’ #2
Dramatis Personae: Bob: Head honcho of BobCorp, nice bloke, cursed with the unusual affliction that people listen to him like they read the Bible. Abigail: His Personal Assistant. Definitely not a stereotype or a rhetorical device.
Scene 1: Bob’s office. Friday afternoon. Bob is shuffling a large amount of paper around and looking nervous. Bob: (on intercom) Abigail, could you come in here for a moment? [Enter Abigail. She looks like the typical PA in a highly contrived sketch about miscommunication. She doesn’t have to be blonde.] Abigail: Yes? Bob: I just got a call from the council… apparently the building works next door might have caused some, um… structural damage to our floor. Abigail: Oh. Bob: Yeah, I need you to call the surveyors and get them to check it out please. Abigail: Okay, no problem. Bob: Great. It’s super important. We don’t want to disappear into a massive sink hole, do we?? Abigail: (thoughtfully) No indeed! Bob: Cool, thanks. Have a great weekend. Scene 2: Bob’s office. Monday morning. Bob is shuffling a large amount of paper around. Bob: Another Monday morning. What a lot of paper I’m shuffling around here. On my desk. Very heavy looking piles of paper. Just sat here. On my desk. My heavy, heavy desk. I love Monday mornings. [Slight creaking noise.] Bob: Yup, lots of paper. [Another creaking noise. A spherical paperweight begins gently rolling across the desk. Bob watches it for a while.] Bob: (on intercom) Abigail, could you come in here for a moment? [Enter Abigail. She is a pale version of her Friday self, and shows signs of recent heavy crying, but she’s putting a brave contrived face on her heavily contrived situation.] Abigail: (sniffing) Yes boss? Bob: (watching paperweight move ever closer to the edge of the desk): Is there anything I should be aware of? Abigail: Well, yes, since you ask, I dumped my boyfriend over the weekend. Bob: … oh. Abigail: We’ve been together seven years. Bob: … ah. Abigail: Yes, it was very painful for everyone. Bob: … yes. Abigail: But it won’t affect my work. Bob: … right. Oh, good. Abigail: And it was the right thing to do. Bob: It was? Abigail: Yes. I’d been thinking about it for a while, and then it just clicked on Friday, you know, when you were talking about the wobbly floor. Bob: … I… oh? Abigail: You said to ring the surveyors, and that’s when I realised – Gavin and I needed to check the foundations of our relationship. Because there’s been so much building work going on next door to us, in the lives of all our friends, you know, but we’ve not really ever strengthened our own relationship, you see, and it’s like we’ve just grown wobbly over time, as life changed around us, and so it was time to end things. Bob: Okay… Well, um, well done? (Pause.) So you rang the surveyors then? [The paperweight reaches the end of its journey across the desk, teeters, and then falls towards the floor. Bob braces for the smashing sound, but the ball falls right through the floor and disappears from sight. A pause. Bob looks at Abigail.] Abigail: No? Bob: Right. [A corner of the desk disappears through the floor. Bob and the desk adopt a new angle. Papers begin to slide downwards.] Bob: It seems a bit redundant now, but, erm… why not? Abigail: You actually wanted me to do that? Bob: Aaaaaaaahhh… yes? Abigail: Well, I listened to you, and I thought: “What is the one thing I really need to know?”, and it was whether Gav and I should end things, and you said about the surveyors, and that was my answer, you see? Bob: (sliding out of sight behind his upturning desk) That’s not how listening works! Abigail: I did the right thing, though, didn’t I? [Bob disappears, along with his desk and all his papers] Abigail: (calling into the widening hole) Didn’t I? Bob? Bob? Fin.
Last week we looked at the theoretically-not-so-thorny question of whether Christians should read the Bible (they should). This week, we’ve entering the slightly warmer waters of how they should read the Bible. And if we had to find a summary for today’s topic, it would be something like this:
Listen to what the Bible is actually telling you, not what you want it to tell you.
The gritty slice of realism, above, came about because Abigail thought that Bob was speaking purely to answer her questions. Abigail believes Bob exists; being generous, we could even say that she respects him enough to make painful sacrifices, based on what she thought he was saying to her. But she wasn’t treating him as her boss, she was treating him as her oracle. It didn’t occur to her that he might have his own agenda for speaking – one which trumped hers.
Christians often do the same with the Bible. Let’s look at an extreme example (which is therefore nice and easy to poo-poo), before we start looking more uncomfortably close to home.
Cadfael and the Sortes Sanctorum
Cadfael, if you’ve not come across him, is a fictional crime-fighting monk-sleuth, who was born in 1080. He looks a lot like Derek Jacobi.
In this particular episode (The Holy Thief), a dispute arises over the vexed issue of where to keep the reliquary of Saint Winifred (essentially a fancy box of bones, but for inexplicable reasons everyone seems to want it). How do a group of Benedictine monks from the 11th century go about resolving a bone-ownership-ding-dong? Through the magical power of superstition, of course. Or the Sortes Sanctorum, to get all Latin on you.
The Sortes Sanctorum works like this: ask your question, open the Bible at random, and see what it tells you. I’m going to try it right now. Should I stop writing this, go downstairs and help with the dinner? Answer:
“And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried.” (Luke 12:29, ESV)
Okay, that actually worked surprisingly well. But I’m going downstairs to help with the dinner anyway, because my wife is dealing with two sick children and a sore foot, and I’m not a monster. Gasp – am I disobeying the direct revealed will of God? No. Because God didn’t write Luke 12:29 so that, in the year 2019, one wannabe blogger would know whether or not to do the washing up. Is it not just a tiny bit arrogant to assume otherwise?
By the way, for your convenience, I’ve created a simple Sortes Sanctorum app here, because physically turning to a random page is actually quite time-consuming and difficult. Try it out, and be amazed by how rarely you get a relevant answer.
Closer to home
I hope we can agree that turning up random Bible verses and twisting them to answer our own questions is not the same thing as listening. The Sortes Sanctorum is wrong on a bunch of levels (we’ll look at the question of context in a later post), but it’s this practice of coming to the Bible with our own agenda that I want to address. And, while Cadfael and his cronies are an extreme example, it’s still a common practice among Christians today.
For example, the inspiration for this post came from a conversation I had a while back with a lovely Christian lady. She and her husband had decided to sell their house in order to move closer to their children. It was a bold decision which involved a fair amount of risk, and, being Christians, they went about it prayerfully. The cathartic moment came during a Bible study – I forget now which passage she said they were studying, let’s say it was Matthew 7:24 – the parable of the wise man who builds his house on the rock. Somehow, in the course of studying this passage, this couple felt they heard God telling them to go ahead with the move. So they did. They stepped out in faith, at a point when it would have been much easier not to, and everything worked out well in the end.
This couple deserve our respect – they wanted to honour God, they wanted to do his will, they made their decision prayerfully, and they obeyed when they felt they had an answer. They also kept going with that decision, even when it later looked like the wrong thing to do, because they were confident that the Lord had told them to do it. And as a result, they now trust God even more, because his will was eventually proven to be right. What kind of a monster would call all that into question?
But I find myself wondering: what was really going on during that Bible study? I think there are two options:
Option One, they were listening – they paid attention to Jesus’ words, and Jesus’ words happened to have implications for whether they moved. (Imagine Abigail had called the surveyors, who had discovered evidence of deliberate sabotage, which had been traced back to Abigail’s boyfriend, who had turned out to be an undercover industrial spy, who had only been dating Abigail in order to gain access to Bob… in that case, listening to Bob would – hopefully – have resulted in her dumping Gavin. That example is, of course, far-fetched; by contrast, Jesus’ words tend to have implications for our whole lives, so it’s by no means inconceivable that moving house was a rational response to what he was saying.)
Or… Option Two: they did an Abigail – they took their own agenda to the passage, and applied a series of mystical contortions to it until it seemed to come up with an answer. And that’s not how listening works.
Incidentally, the parable of the wise man who builds his house on the rock? It’s all about listening (and doing):
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. (Matthew 7:24, ESV)
Really close to home
So this is a conscious way of getting things wrong – it’s based on a wrong understanding how the Bible works. We think “hey, the Bible is a special book”, so we invent a special way of reading it. Instead of simply listening, we treat it like a Magic 8-Ball or a pack of tarot cards or a horoscope. It’s just superstition, and Christians – despite what the world thinks – don’t need to be superstitious.
The good news is that there’s an easy fix for this: just stop doing it. The Bible is God speaking to you – just listen to what he’s saying. His agenda, not ours. Hopefully the ludicrous tail of Bob and Abigail has helped to make this clear.
The bad news is that we also do this subconsciously. It’s one of the things that makes listening hard. We all have our own agendas pressing against the inside of our skulls, and they taint our ability to hear what the speaker is really saying. That’s not due to a wrong understanding of the Bible, it’s a problem with our human nature, and it’s something we all have to guard against. Especially if you want to be a crime-fighting monk-sleuth. Really listening is probably one of the top skills any sleuth needs to acquire.
But all that will have to wait for another post.