[In my previous posts I have suggested approaching the Bible as a “truth mine,” to be excavated for eternal and divine truths that are applicable to everyone, is problematic for several reasons. The development and nature of the Bible itself makes it hard to use in this manner and it is also problematic in practice. In this post I want to suggest some of the reasons why despite these issues, this continues to be the dominant way most Christians approach their Bible.]
Despite its flaws, Christians appear Hell bent on continuing to use the “Truth mine” approach to scripture. If you were to listen to any sermon in Christianity, listen to the conversation of the congregation afterwards, or crack open a Christian book at a book store, I can all but guarantee the “Truth mine” approach would be there, if not be foundational to what was being said. Why do Christians keep forcing a round ball (the Bible) into a square peg (the “Truth mine” approach)?
From my own life and my experiences in the church I would suggest there are five common reasons why this problematic approach of the Bible continues to dominate the landscape.
1. Western Culture: The “Truth mine” approach to the Bible is a distinctly Western approach to the Bible. Western Christians (and often those impacted by the missionary work of Western Christians) are deeply influenced by Western culture and the Western worldview. Westerners, myself included, are heirs of the Enlightenment and Modernity and our culture values clear statements and rational answers. We like charts and grids. We do not like the unknown. Mining the stories of the Bible for “biblical truths,” no matter how problematic, is in our nature. We are culturally pre-disposed to treat the Bible like this.
2. The desire to establish boundaries for the Christian community: Communities tend to want to create boundaries and limits to their community. These boundaries help determine who is part of the community in question and who is not. Christians often use the “biblical truths” their specific sect of Christianity adhere to in order to create boundaries for their community. The “biblical truths” mined get turned into very useful ways to distinguish people who are “in” from people who are “out.” I will return to this in a later post.
3. Ignorance: Many Christians honestly do not know any better. On one hand, I do not think we should fault newer or younger Christians for the failure of their parents or church leadership to instruct them. When I was raised up as a Christian, no one at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Modesto Covenant Church, or Big Valley Grace Community Church ever told anything about the development of the Bible, discussed its nature as a collection of widely different spiritual texts, or discussed issues of inspiration and interpretation. I was not in a place of power, nor did I know there were even issues taht were being ignored. I was just told the Bible was the Word of God and it was authoritative for our lives. While the consequences of my ignorance of these issues were great and regrettable for myself and others, I think we can see that at least for a time my ignorance came from a failure in those above me in Christianity. On the other hand, many Christians are adults or have been in Christianity a long time and yet continue to remain ignorant. We live in an era where there are unprecedented amounts of information about the Bible available to us. Where adult Christians persist in their ignorance and continue to misuse the Bible, they should be held responsible.
4. Maintaining stability and the status quo: People usually fear and resist change. Christians are no different. The “Truth mine” approach enables a black and white worldview and clear answers on everything. This gives people a lot of answers regarding how they should live and think and a false sense of control, security and often moral superiority.To let go of the “Truth mine” approach, Christians know they must also let go of these benefits, which may have served them for well for years. Additionally, this approach might be all they have ever known and there is nothing different to be seen around them.
Christian churches are also no different. Like a family system, the Church fights for homeostasis and stability. The “Truth mine” approach is so deeply seeded and wide-spread in Christianity it is part of what keeps the whole Christian religion afloat. Any threat to the stability of the system, which any questioning of the “Truth mine” approach certainly would be, is downplayed or attacked. People who do “rock the boat” by critiquing the “Truth mine” approach, or doctrines and systems it leads to, often find themselves standing alone, being silenced, or being ushered out the door. Is it easier to expel a handful of people who point to issues most people would rather ignore or for an entire congregation to do some deep soul-searching and question long-held beliefs, a process that may lead them to unknown conclusions and maybe even a different approach to faith and life altogether?
5. Control and Power: In the movie the Book of Eli, the main story line is a huge critique of how the power of the Bible is wielded. In the story the world is destroyed after a religious conflict engulfs the world. In a response, every copy of the Bible is destroyed to keep it from happening again. However, one copy, carried by a man named Eli escapes destruction and a man, Carnegie, craves to possess the book to possess its power. Two quotations from the book stand out:
Carnegie: I need that book, I want that book, I want you to stay but if you make me have to choose I’ll kill you and take that book
Eli: Why, why do you want it?
Carnegie: I grew up with that book, I know its power.
Carnegie: To his men “Put a crew together, we’re going after ’em.”
Redridge: For a fuckin’ book?
Carnegie: IT’S NOT A FUCKIN’ BOOK! IT’S A WEAPON. A weapon aimed right at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate. It will give us control of them. If we want to rule more than one small, fuckin’ town, we have to have it. People will come from all over, they’ll do exactly what I tell ’em if the words are from the book. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again. All we need is that book.
In the “Truth mine” approach, the Bible is a shortcut to incredible power and it certain people to wield incredibly spiritual and political power, at least when they are addressing Christians.
If you are addressing people who believe the Bible is the Word of God, you can tell them to think or believe in any way you want them to, “if the words are from the book.” By invoking the words of the Bible you are invoking divine authority. If someone disagrees with you they are disagreeing with God himself. You, and those you speak to, do not have to even understand what the words meant or were supposed to convey in your original context. You don’t have to spend hours in prayer. You don’t have to have a relationship with God. You don’t have to live as an example. You don’t have to spend any time studying the Bible, its development or nature. You can use passages completely out of context. You don’t have to have any connection with the Holy Spirit. As long as your audience recognizes that the words are from the Bible, or sounds vaguely like something in the Bible, they will often accept it uncritically. This is especially true if other people around them are nodding along in agreement.
Why would Christian leaders and teachers, those uniquely situated to expose the issues with the “Truth mine” approach and teach people about the development and nature of the Bible, ever critique the “Truth mine” approach when it gives them such power?
[In my next post I would like to be constructive an offer an alternative paradigm for understanding the Bible.]
P.S. I must take this opportunity to confess my sins and ask for forgiveness from many people. I have mentioned that my legalism has often hurt others but to be very specific, a lot of this came from my own use of the “Truth mine” approach to the Bible.
By searching the Bible for divine and eternal truths that apply to everyone I read the Bible highly subjectively and selectively, trusted a lot of what was taught to me by other Christians without question, and blindly went along with other Christians. I benefited greatly. I was given black and white answers to many of life’s challenging questions, a stable worldview, and a false sense of moral superiority. I hope people grace for me in a number of ways. Because my home environment was chaotic and unstable I really looked for safety and stability and found that in Christianity, a religious system that was stable, even if it used the “Truth mine” approach. I also desperately needed to feel morally superior because I felt I was morally inferior; guilt over my secret addiction and self-hatred gnawed at me for years.
However, my peace and stability came at a cost, and I exported this cost to others. My “Truth mine” approach to the Bible meant that I judged people, often very harshly, either in my heart or to their face from the Bible. This meant that I was thinking or telling people that God said what they thought or what they did was wrong. This was spiritually abusive, and often incorrect. This also persisted way too long. Not even a year ago, in my posts on sexual ethics, you can see how I invoked the clear moral authority of the Bible. I made it say things it never said to support my pre-existing beliefs, and left absolutely no room for grace. I am deeply ashamed of this. You all deserved to be treated much better and a lot of what I said with divine authority was incorrect.