Note from CM: In 2015 we will mark five years since the death of Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk. Today, we continue our “Sundays with Michael” series with another excerpt from a post that was originally published in February 2005. Last week, from this same post, we heard Michael critique approaching the Bible like a “magic book.” Today he suggests another metaphor to describe a common, inadequate way of reading the Bible.
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Another way of approaching the Bible is by collecting verses. The “grocery store” analogy is particularly helpful in describing how mainstream evangelicals approach scripture. The appearance of concordances and computer searching has allowed the emphasis on verses and lists of verses to develop to a high level. One need only find the proper book or software, and a search can be conducted to retrieve a list of verses relating to any subject, word or term. I compare this to going into a grocery store with a shopping list. I many need verses on marriage, parenting and forgiveness. I take my list, run up and down the aisles, and find the verses I need. (Or to be more true to today’s technology, I present my list to the man at the front, and he sends a runner to pick up my verses for me, while I simply meet him at the checkout.)
The idea that the Bible is a library of verses has been propagated through Bible study tools, but also through methods of preaching. Many popular preachers today NEVER engage a text unless it is a story with a lesson that speaks to a “felt need.”. They engage a topic that has been focus-grouped to gain the interest of the audience. (See Ed Young, Jr. for a good example) Then verses are marshalled to present an outline of principles. The Bible is the source of the verses, so it is routinely asked, “What does the Bible say about assessing potential spouses?” Since the collection of verses comes from the Bible, the conclusion seems sound. The “Bible” in this case is a humanly arranged collection of verses, out of context, with a variable degree of likelihood in relating to the truth.
While I am not saying that abuse of this method is universal, it is common. I could easily accumulate grocery lists of texts on polygamy, slavery, stoning rebellious children, demonic exorcism to solve physical problems, the need to exterminate unbelievers, and so on. All my lists would answer a “What does the Bible say?” question. And all could, potentially, seriously misrepresent the overall message that God has sent us in scripture, because the meaning of larger texts, especially books, has been ignored. I could even use the Bible itself to teach the very opposite of what the Bible teaches. In seminary, I was taught that the Bible was pro-abortion by a selective accumulation of texts. And no one laughed or cried, Orwellian as it was.
The use of the grocery store method is entirely dependent on how the accumulator understands the way verses relate to one another in larger contexts. For instance, the basic idea of old and new covenants would seriously affect how someone selected verses on worship and presented them as, “The Bible says we should worship by….” Some verse accumulation preachers are excellent. It is a method that can bear much fruit and be helpful, IF done in a context of actually understanding the larger framework of scripture. (Much like I could find lists of sentences in Walden on self-sufficiency that might misrepresent or well-represent Thoreau’s intentions in the book.)