Friday, August 1, 2008

Spiritual Innoculation

One of the things that originally got me on the subject of what the Bible actually says about itself was my frustration about how people in the church use it. . .and these are things I have encountered in a wide variety of Christian settings, not just evangelical/fundamental ones. I refer here to the devotional rituals described by some as "time with the Lord" or "quiet time" or "time in the Word." Whatever the terminology, conventional usage has invested a regular, periodic time of Bible reading with the power of a "Spiritual Discipline" that may be anything from a source of divine guidance to direct communion with God. Perhaps the worst, most insipid form of this practice is in the statement "the Bible is God's love letter to you."

I do not discount that familiarity with and study of the Biblical texts is essential to anyone who intends to model his or her life after Jesus--for as I said before, the Biblical record is the most complete account we have of Jesus' life and teachings. Nor do I disallow the possibility that the Holy Spirit may prompt vital thoughts or guidance in the believer while reading their Bible, though I believe the Spirit may just as well guide one's thoughts while one is reading non-Biblical literature (even the news). But the mystical properties often ascribed to the Bible are silly at best, and are certainly not supported by the texts themselves.

The most compelling argument against the mystical efficacy of Bible reading has got to be the ol' "by their works you shall know them" one Jesus used so effectively in his dissertation about false prophets in Matt 7:15-20. The "wolves in sheep's clothing" likely refers to the Pharisees and teachers of the law, as he used similar terms to describe these groups elsewhere. They were among the most scripturally-trained and studied individuals of the time, and perhaps any time. These were the guys of whom he said:

"You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf." (John 5:39, NRSV)

Just as in Jesus' time, so also in ours, there is no correlation between people who regularly read their Bibles and discipleship behavior. Though there are certainly many people trying their level best to follow Jesus, many of the purveyors of the greatest hatred and vitriol in the name of Christianity today, are people who at least publicly subscribe to the regular-time-in-the-word discipline. I'll bet that George Bush reads his Bible regularly, and it didn't help him in the slightest to see past the perpetration of endless lies and the shedding of a great deal of innocent blood in the name of a "Christian" nation. Nor did it prevent him from blasphemously replacing Jesus with America when he misquoted John on 9/11/02 "the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it" (last line of the speech--cf. John 1:5), or when he misquoted Isaiah while promoting his education program (note, this document is no longer on the White House website and I can't find another online archive - it was Bush speaking at the White House Education Summit in 2005 or 2006, I believe) "children living in darkness would see a great light" (cf. Isaiah 9:2). Not only Bush, but American Evangelicals, also supposedly regular readers of their Bibles, have failed to call him on repeated, blasphemous conflation of America with Jesus.

Of course I'm not blaming the Bible for the sins of its readers. I'm merely arguing that it's got no intrinsic power apart from (1) the working of the Holy Spirit in the mind of the reader, and (2) the openness of the reader to be worked upon. But it's worse than that. Misuse of the Bible--that is using it other than it was intended, can actually work at cross purposes to God. Here, finally is perhaps one of the greatest insults to God's word committed by the church.

My professional background is in public health, and for a number of years I worked in the field of immunization. As most readers will know, the process of immunization involves taking a bacterium or virus that causes disease, either weakening it or killing it, and then innoculating a person with a small, controlled quantity of that weakened (attenuated) or killed disease agent. When the body is exposed to the vaccine, the immune system generates antibodies which are then available to respond to the full-strength "wild type" agent if ever it is encountered.

This is such a parable for the way the Bible has been used on and by Christians. Our sermons, Sunday Schools, and devotionals extract bits of the Bible, strip them of any properties that might do any harm, and then repeatedly expose believers to this attenuated gospel until we've built up such an immunity that the real thing has no effect on us.

Like most analogies, this one breaks down if pushed too far, so I will refrain from expanding it further. However, we do need to carefully re-examine our use of the Bible, not only to discern the will and word of God within it, but to be sure that we are not perpetuating the process of innoculating ourselves or others against the genuine movement of God.

No comments: