October 22, 2017

Sundays with Michael Spencer: February 22, 2015

Elijah Fed by Ravens, Franck

Elijah Fed by Ravens, Franck

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 an excerpt from a post that was originally published in February 2005.

• • •

I believe most Christians use the word “inspiration” to mean “the Bible is a magic book, where God speaks to us in unusual ways.” By this they mean that the contents of the Bible–the verses–have unusual power when read or applied. So if we were to transfer this idea to another book, and treat it as we treat the Bible, it might be like this: If we considered “Walden” to be inspired in the typical evangelical way, we would not be looking for the big ideas or the main point in Thoreau’s book, but we would be examining particular sentences to see if they “spoke to us.” The actual text of “Walden” would be secondary to our use of verses.

So on, let’s say, the matter of changing jobs, we might find a sentence that says, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” and we would conclude that this verse is God telling us to change jobs. Or another sentence might say, “I left my job and moved to the woods.” This, we would say, is God speaking to us. Now we might be able to read the entire book and sustain that conclusion, or we might find–if we studied better–that the book didn’t sustain that particular use of an individual sentence. It wouldn’t really matter, however, to most of us, because God used the verse to speak to us, and that is the way we read the Bible.

Or, for further example, say someone is facing a troubled marriage. He reads and discovers a sentence in “Walden” that says, “I did not speak to another person for over a month.” From this, he concludes that God is telling him to not argue with his spouse. The fact that this is a universe away from what Thoreau meant with that sentence would be irrelevant. This is how we would be using “Walden” as a “magic book.” Recognize the method? I think we all do.

If we were committed to the “magic book” approach and someone were to teach “Walden” as a whole, telling us the main ideas and message in the book, we might not consider that particularly impressive. It is nice to know what the book says, we would say, but the use of the book as a “magic text” doesn’t depend at all on understanding the meaning of the overall book, or the message Thoreau was conveying. Introductions and analysis of the book as a whole would almost be a secondary, and mostly useless, exercise in comparison to the more exciting and personal “magic book” use of “Walden.” We might be confident, in fact, that the ordinary reader can handle the “inspired Walden” with far more relevance for his life than the educated scholar handles the same book, because the scholar doesn’t believe that the sentences contain the power. So ignorance is no barrier in the magic book approach. Recognize that, too? Uh-huh.

I hope you can see the parallels here with our use of the Bible, and the many “magic book” methods that are commonly used to present the Christian life as growing out of the Bible. Take a recent Joel Osteen sermon I liveblogged at the BHT. In the message, Osteen used part of the story of Elijah. God told Elijah that ravens would bring him food at a certain brook. From this, Osteen preached that God will provide us what we need to be blessed if we show up at the right place in life and look for God’s blessing. This dubious use of the Bible is applauded within evangelicalism as completely appropriate because it is “magic bookism,” and it speaks to us about our lives and concerns, which are always tantamount in our minds. Yet it is hardly a leap to say that this grabbing of a few verses and using them as the basis for a mystical principle for being blessed is a very strange way to approach the Bible’s message to us. But it honors the Bible as a “magic book”, and far more people are listening to Joel Osteen, a man who arguably couldn’t present an introduction/exposition of any Biblical book if asked to do so, than are listening to preachers and teachers who understand what the Bible is and is saying.

Comments

  1. “…far more people are listening to Joel Osteen, a man who arguably couldn’t present an introduction/exposition of any Biblical book if asked to do so, than are listening to preachers and teachers who understand what the Bible is and is saying.”

    Not at all a surprise. People are always in search of more generous words than what the Bible has to offer.

    They didn’t want Him then (2,000 years ago )…

    …and we still don’t want Him.

    • Christiane says:

      then there is the ‘circuit’ speakers who travel to various evangelical fundamentalist settings to offer what is ‘wanted’ in the line of Islamophobia, misogyny, Homophobia, transgender trashing, various conspiracy theory ‘facts’, End Times ‘signs’ and prophecies, and the anti-everyone and everything that is not ‘like us’ . . .

      there is big money to be made on this circuit, and there are many who feast off of it for a living and many who seek it out for ‘entertainment’ and a pitiful hour or so of self-esteem building in the role of modern Pharisees who ‘thank God we are not like those other sinners’ . . .

      I often think about how God can make some use of this mess, if only by permitting it to be so very extreme that even the participants no longer can stomach their own hubris . . . at which point, He can insert some light into the darkness in ways far beyond our understanding

      I discovered some when blogging on Southern Baptist blogs: there are among SB’s people of humility and grace who understand Our Lord’s calling to imitate Him in this way,
      but there are many more for whom the word ‘humility’ signals ‘weakness’ . . . or its just another word among the so very many Christianese words taken for granted and put in their place so that the circus of chest-thumping we-are-saved-and you-are-bound-for-a-devil’s-hell will proceed on schedule as a form of shocking the fearful into submission in exchange for ‘perfect assurance’ . . .

      am I too judgmental? Yes. But do I also know that God brings good out of all kinds of messes? I do know.
      I know this very well. So I am at peace that where people are exposed to the sacred Scriptures, they are not forever lost to their own self-righteousness, and there is even hope for my own judgmental ways to be healed. And today my hope is strengthened by an encounter with the liturgical prayers of the Coptic martyrs’ faith:

      From the liturgy of the Coptic Church, before the Gospel is read, these words are spoken in community:
      ““. . . You are the life of us all, the salvation of us all, the hope of us all, the healing of us all, and the resurrection of us all.”

      Let the healing proceed. Credo.

      • rom the liturgy of the Coptic Church, before the Gospel is read, these words are spoken in community:
        ““. . . You are the life of us all, the salvation of us all, the hope of us all, the healing of us all, and the resurrection of us all.”

        Let the healing proceed. Credo.

        Amen. I can’t imagine what effect that would have on individuals and churches if we led with that. On me, even.

        Amen.

      • If that is the world that you travel in, then I thank God I’m not there!

    • I’ll give Osteen this: he preaches what others absolutely WILL NEVER preach.

      It’s the same problem I have with Horton’s Christless Christianity. Positionally he puts himself and the Reformed world against so-called “moralistic theraupeutic deism”. How that translates is that he/that group are entirely against you being happy and moral while following and loving God.

      Blank that.

      Osteem may miss a lot, be on the other end of the pendulum…but after 30 years of the exact opposite, I need to hear that God loves me and wants to bless me and promises me a good life. God has always loved and blessed others. When is it my turn for those “promises”?

      • Jesus at least healed you, blessed you, and gave you some fish and bread.

        I’d take just one of those from everyone else.

  2. Faulty O-Ring says:

    To make the analogy perfect, we would have to imagine interpreting Thoreau’s Walden in light of B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two.

  3. While the late Michael Spencer equated Joel Osteen with the Evangelicals; I have a hard time getting there. I see Joel as a part of the charasmatic “health and wealth” crew, NOT Evangelicalism.

    • Actually, it’s not that big of a leap. While evangelicalism may not be as blatant about it as some charismatic circles are, the same idea of “if we only have faith/be good/have the proper theology, God will bless us” is there. However it manifests itself – whether in Christianized diets or financial plans, calls to “have faith” in the face of crushing crisis, or the mania to “restore America to her Christian roots” – IMHO it all comes back to “if we do X, God will give us Y”. And that’s the health-and-wealth “gospel” at its core.

      • Eeyore, you are right. The pastor(s) of a church or leaders of a denomination may not preach it explicitly from the pulpit, but I’ve experienced the parishioners to have imbibed it from somewhere; whether a book from the “christian” bookstore (certainly Osteens books), or some radio program or someone else they know who does sit under that explicit teaching… It may be a sub-strata, but it’s there in one sense or another throughout most of american evangelicalism (in my experience at least)

        • Brianthedad says:

          Dave Ramsey’s status in churches of all stripe, Lutheran included, speaks to what you are saying. Follow these biblical principles and you’ll be rich. Most churches will deny that what he’s pushing is at all health and wealth, but if it quacks…

          • Hmm…I think I disgree with including Dave Ramsey in this. I don’t think he’s saying “Follow these biblical principles and you’ll be rich.” I think he’s saying, “Follow these biblical principles and your finances will become healthier than they currently are.” Big, BIG difference, and much in line with Jesus (paraphrasing: “Follow me and you will become spiritually healthier.”)

            • My problem is him saying that they are universal, unchanging “biblical” principles. That is abuse of the Bible akin to what Michael is writing about here.

          • You mean like him saying, “You can’t have ANY debt”…? (Then yes, I see what you’re saying.)

      • Evangelicalism covers a broad spectrum.

        • Richard Hershberger says:

          This. Any discussion along these lines is pretty much guaranteed to provoke a “no true Scotsman” argument. The way I see the term generally used is quite broadly, including everything from Pentecostalism to the neo-Reformed crowd. To put it another way, I regard Evangelical Protestantism as a distinct category from mainline Protestanism. The boundaries are confused, and don’t always fall along denominational lines, but the division is as great as the traditional division between Protestant and Catholic (which also has its boundary issues).

          Viewed this way, the Joel Osteen crowd certainly classifies as Evangelical. For what it is worth, I am pretty sure they would agree with that classification. This discussion only arises because many groups within this broad sense of the word place high value on being “Evangelical” and would love to claim it as exclusively theirs. Good luck, but that isn’t how the rest of the world uses the word.

          • “I regard Evangelical Protestantism as a distinct category from mainline Protestanism”
            “many groups within this broad sense of the word place high value on being “Evangelical” and would love to claim it as exclusively theirs. ”

            +1

            Generally I don’t believe “Evangelical” – as it is actually used outside of those who want to own the label – is a label that describes much beyond (a) protestant in historical origin (b) exclusionary / moralistic and (c) culturally confrontational. It may or may not, but generally does, also demand (d) a somewhat apocalyptic world view.

            Olsteen qualifies.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        However it manifests itself – whether in Christianized diets or financial plans, calls to “have faith” in the face of crushing crisis, or the mania to “restore America to her Christian roots” – IMHO it all comes back to “if we do X, God will give us Y”.

        Isn’t that Magick with a “k”? When the mortal sorcerer has his incantation and ritual exactly right, the supernatural beings/forces are COMPELLED to do what the sorcerer wants?

      • That’s why Dave Ramsay and FPU are just the flip side of h&w. It’s still prosperity gospel, just done differently.

        Lots of money to be made.

    • I’ve been surprised how Biblical some of the health and wealth crew are. They know how to open their Bibles and use them to find what they are looking for.

      They start from some bad interpretations, but they’ve got a lot of verses, at least.

    • Osteen is basically reassembling the basic principles that most evangelicals work with in a way that appeals to materialism. They are both based on the revivalist mold. Get people whipped up with decontextualized Bible verses to perceive some need in themselves, then satisfy the need by feeding them the goods on condition of some abstraction of “faith” which can mean whatever a given preacher wants it to mean. The goods and the method of whipping people up changes, but the blueprint is the same. Osteen just is completely unashamed about appealing to materialistic desires, whereas most evangelicals super-spiritualize their desires.

  4. Great piece again from Michael and a great way to uncover something through analogy. And it has so many connections to current circumstances (including my own recent ponderings) I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this focusing-on-the-trees-or-even-lesser instead-of-the-forest approach to the Bible in light of another major religion’s faction doing the same thing with their holy words and using that approach to justify butchery. Now I’m very hopeful that most christians I know wouldn’t go that far with the Bible, but the potential is certainly there… and so this call to consider the big picture and work more from that is heartening and encouraging to me at least.

  5. This sermon speaks directly to this topic:

    http://theoldadam.com/2015/02/08/name-it-and-claim-itin-jesus-name/

    • Personally, Steve, I can’t disagree with you on the so called “Word of Faith” movement. I don’t think, however, you are looking critically enough at the churches that fit in the “Evangelical” classification alone.

      Nearly every church that I look at (with rare exceptions) claim “The Bible is inerrant in it’s original autographs”… That speaks of “it was magic but we may have changed it”.

      A church I attended which was far from “Word of Faith” made the claim that “When you read the Bible, the Bible reads you”.

      To the posts above, I’ve gotten tired of people (pastors not excluded) making broad claims from one verse and ignoring the ones around it. For example, “Tattoos are sinful” but condemning long hair and beards (Lev 19:27-28) or that parents that believe if they do train up their kids correctly, they will not depart from the faith..

      • I agree, Joel. Biblicism is a huge problem in churches and that leads to legalism.

        We Lutheran types figure pretty everything that we do apart from faith in Christ…is sin. I have never met a pure motive yet.

        So we use that law to condemn us…but then announce the complete forgiveness for all that sin, in Christ Jesus.

        So many Christians almost or in fact, worship the Bible. They fail to take seriously the Scripture verse that says that “God uses earthen vessels” to accomplish His will.

        The finite contains the infinite.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        A church I attended which was far from “Word of Faith” made the claim that “When you read the Bible, the Bible reads you”.

        Was he channeling Yakov Smirnov by any chance?

        • Maybe George Orwell, with his telescreens in 1984, when you watch them, they watch you. Big Brother is watching!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Nearly every church that I look at (with rare exceptions) claim “The Bible is inerrant in it’s original autographs”… That speaks of “it was magic but we may have changed it”.

        Isn’t that what the Mormons say about the OT & NT?
        “Insofar as it was translated correctly”?

  6. Just for the sake of argument…

    Let’s see, Jesus comes, people flock to him because of the beauty of his words and teaching, the religious people of the time criticize him strongly and call him a heretic.

    Joel Olsteen comes, people flock to him because of the beauty of his words and teaching, the religious people of the time criticize him strongly and call him a heretic.

    • flatrocker says:

      So you’re saying Joel Osteen is really…..wait for it….just like the serpant in the garden?

      • LOL. (BTW…I didn’t necessarily BELIEVE in my own argument…)

        • flatrocker says:

          Rick,
          Actually, I think you’ve stumbled upon the glitter of why evil is attractive. It has a way of disguising itself as a hard to distinguish counterfieit of the real thing.

  7. This may be way off topic and if it is I understand if the comment is deleted or ignored. But for those of us in the “wilderness” who have evangelical family and friends, how do we go about being “one” with them without blowing our lids? I just had a major blowout with a small group that is led by my bro and sis in law. They and others there are what I’d describe as “cultural” Christians living in the “bubble”. They seem to have more antipathy toward the “world” than empathy. And this makes me very angry and I had to leave. How do we maintain our “oneness” that Christ prayed for with those that drive us up a wall?

    • Good question. Some thoughts…
      -Keep pointing to Jesus and the gospels. Suggest reading Hebrews, then one or two of the gospel accounts. If Jesus is the exact representation of the Father, we need to keep examining what he says and does.

      -Find a few others who believe like you do, so you don’t lose your sanity. This has been HUGE for me, to know I’m not alone when running up against the disciples who want to stay in the boat.

      -Pray, and give it to Jesus, and back off until you pray some more and give it to Jesus some more. Seriously, only Jesus can break down some of the wall between Christians.

      More thoughts might follow, but I have to run now.

      • Thank you Rick. I will focus on these things. Calling them “cultural” Christians is not fair of me to say. They bear fruit and love the Lord, I don’t doubt. But their lack of compassion makes me angry. There is a wall there and I know it’s my fault, so I won’t receive Communion today. Not until I can reconcile with them only with Jesus’ help.

        • I wouldn’t let this affect your communion, but that’s just me. Communion is important, no matter where your current path leads.

          • Good advice, Rick.

            And I agree especially about Communion. The idea that we need to perfectly reconcile with everyone in order to be worthy of receiving Communion cuts us off at the knees; if we are in Christ, if we have been baptized into his death, we are reconciled through him with everything and everyone. Yes, we want to live into the reconciliation as much as possible; but what will help us most to live into it is to be in communion with him, and this is what we do in Holy Communion.

          • Thank you Rick and Robert. Much to learn on my part.

    • Hi JoelG.

      The way I’ve approached things is with grace constantly reminding myself that those around me are not in the same spot of the journey that I am.

      • Thank you Joel. It’s hard when it feels like one against 12. The defences come out and I end up treating them the same way I think they treat the “world”.

    • “But for those of us in the “wilderness” who have evangelical family and friends, how do we go about being “one” with them without blowing our lids?”

      It is not possible. Sorry. If you are outside they have antipathy for you, however they choose to describe it.

      There can be no peace.

      • I disagree that there can be no peace. I think there are reasons the disciples (and fellow believers) stay in the boat: Fear. Once you wrap your head around their fear, you can approach them with a bit less anger and work on that wall. There “can” be a peace in that wall-chiseling.

        But it isn’t easy.

      • I agree with Rick, Finn. I think we need to try. Sometimes I think the Lord specifically puts us in relationships with people who, without His help, it’d otherwise be impossible to reconcile with.

    • That’s a great question Joel, and one I’ve been asking for awhile. ”

      I was confronted with a Christian of that stripe recently who took it upon himself to pretend (immediately upon meeting me) that he needed to present himself as a spiritual mentor to me (first made sure I was ‘saved’). He was, without knowing it, very condescending and super spiritual, and didn’t actually end up saying anything Biblical or distinctly Christian, let alone helpful.

      Upon reflection, I kind of feel like it’s my responsibility when I see this guy around to take it upon myself to steer the conversation, exercise the initiative, if you will. If the conversation gets Biblical, then to steer it into Jesus-centered content and offer light critiques if necessary. That way I don’t need to stew in resentment afterwards, nor am I pushing him away…

      Needles to say, this is not my normal M.O.; I usually just smile and nod at these types. But I now think I need to maybe push some buttons with them, if possible. Picking the right ones to push of course.

      • Thank you Nate. You are much more graceful than I was on Friday. This is good advice and something I need to pray about and practice. “Stew in resentment”. This is how I spent my Saturday.

  8. Very insightful words of wisdom from Michael. And ISTM it’s a problem that’s far more widespread than just the health and wealth types, though it’s more subtle but no less damaging elsewhere. What comes to my mind specifically is biblical/nouthetic counseling, which takes the Bible and uses for something it was never intended or designed to do. When you believe the Bible has the answer to any issue, everything becomes measured by how “biblical” it is, and it takes a lot of intellectual and logical gymnastics to keep that enterprise going.

  9. Several years ago when I was walking a lot of city blocks to work and elsewhere a weak ankle began to turn and tumble me rather frequently, without warning. Without looking for a scripture to magically minister to me, as I wouldn’t have done that, I happened to read from Psalm 18, “He gives me the surefootedness of a mountain goat upon the crags”, then “You have made wide steps beneath my feet so that I need never slip.” (The Living Bible). I began praying this as I started out, and my falling stopped..I know that these words helped me focus on being careful, so thankful I ran across them when I needed them!

    • Saint Augustine’s conversion was precipitated when he heard a childlike voice saying, Take up and read, which he interpreted to mean that he should read the first text he found when he opened up the scriptures. As it turned out, this scripture, “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof,” (Romans 13: 13 & 14) spoke directly to his condition, and moved him to finally make the decision to be baptized and become a Christian.

      God can can speak to us in all sorts of unusual ways; in this case, he spoke to Augustine in what could easily be thought of as a “magical” way. But it’s important to remember that Augustine did not spend the rest of his life scripture-dipping (is that the right term?) to find the answers he sought in life, or to grow in wisdom and understanding of God; instead, he undertook to study and understand the scriptures with all the available interpretative tools at hand, with the best contemporary scholarship, and, most important of all, with his formidable intellect.

      God may speak to us in all sorts of unusual ways, even through the mouth of an ass; but if this is the way he chooses to get our attention, it’s not because he wants us to become assess ourselves. He wants us to use our minds, and avail ourselves of the good work of the minds of others, when we approach the scriptures. This is the way we grow in knowledge of, and intimacy with, him.

  10. another Mary says:

    calls to “have faith” in the face of crushing crisis, Okay,,, so what are we supposed to do instead?
    I get all the rest but why has this phrase been added to the general criticism of evangelicals?
    I have followed this site for years and I enjoy it so much but sometimes is smell a bit smug around here… IMHO

  11. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I get all the rest but why has this phrase been added to the general criticism of evangelicals?

    Because “faith” has come to mean a pious-sounding word for doing nothing?

    • I’m going to start throwing “Avada Kedavra” into my prayers to see who is paying attention.

      • Depending on the circle you’re in, that might be mistaken for tongues… just as good as “shoulda bought a Honda,” with the added nerd bonus!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        “I Speak and It Is Not”, the inverse of “Abracadabra”?

        “See who is paying attention”, like the Van Halen rider requiring Brown M&Ms (and only Browns) be removed from the band’s candy bowls? According to the band, that was added as a test to see if the promoter actually read the rider; if they found Brown M&Ms in their bowls, they’d start checking to see if the promoter skimped somewhere else as well.

  12. Michael had his finger on the pulse. The worst is when someone tries to use Scripture the right way and they’re met with either blank stares or the admonishing “yes but we need to make sure we’re applying it to our lives, not just ‘being religious.'”

    God forbid we step outside of our self-attention for five minutes in order to see Christ as he really is.

    • God forbid we step outside of our self-attention for five minutes in order to see Christ as he really is.

      …and now I’m going to have to resist the temptation to use that sentence whenever the chance comes…

  13. When it came to interpretation and use of the scripture, Jesus danced and maneuvered like it was nobody’s business.

    • I recently heard a great explanation of one of the Apostle Paul’s quotations of the Old Testament where he blatantly misquotes it in order to meet his theological needs of Christ-centeredness and gentile inclusion. I need to look that one up and pull it out next time I’m in a conversation about hermeneutics.

      • Absolutely. I think we would be scandalized at their freewheeling but it is born of their absolute authority with the subject. They see the big picture and the trajectory and use scripture to elucidate it.