On Letting the Bible Get Too Close

Charles E. Gutenson

The man had a way with words. About that, there can be no doubt. In my view, he was a master of putting such a sharp edge on things that one could hardly read what he said without one of two reactions — simply dismiss them as meaningless hyperbole or let them cut to the quick our own hypocrisy. My sense is that the latter is almost always the appropriate response, but to each her own. Our own need to see ourselves as friends of God who are faithfully living out the gospel frequently trumps any invitation to visit the possibility that we might be seriously off track. I wish my own writing were as trenchant as the following quote, but alas, I’ll have to settle for sharing his words:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.

Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations (Plough, 2002), 193

Hyperbole, you suppose? Perhaps, but one of the things that makes hyperbole successful as a literary trope is that the exaggerations deployed unmask an underlying truth in a powerful way. The underlying truth here? That neither understanding Scripture nor following Jesus is all that complicated, and the thing that prevents us from faithfully imitating Christ is that we really don’t want to. Let that sink in. The primary obstacle is that we just don’t really want to bear the cost of being imitators of Christ.

Do me a favor. For the next few minutes, let Kierkegaard’s words have your undivided attention as you ponder their truthfulness. Have we tried to “be good Christians without letting the Bible come to close?”

How often have we dismissed Jesus’s words, if we be honest, not because they are hard to understand, but because they mess with our comfort? How often have we allowed ourselves to be persuaded that the admonition to “turn the other cheek” really means pretty much the opposite of what it sounds like?

Do we find persuasive the argument that we really can’t “elevate the interest of others over our own” because, as we all know, we’d be taken advantage of? Do we find consonance in the idea that we can, at the same time, “love our enemies as ourselves” and demonize them, kill them, or otherwise do them harm?

Have we drawn comfort from exegetical arguments that allow us to see no relevance for us in the words to “sell all you have and give to the poor” because, after all, we really enjoy our stuff?

Let me suggest that affirmative answers to those questions are indicative of a desire to feel good about our Christian faith while simultaneously eviscerating it of the very things that would transform us into the image of Christ.

If you’re still with me, let me suggest a second “test” to see how much we may have fallen prey to the criticism Kierkegaard levels. In addition to embracing interpretations of Scripture that allow us to avoid things that challenge our comforts, do we also find Scripture crystal clear on those things we find morally unacceptable, but to which we are not tempted?

For example, do we find passages addressing how we treat immigrants and refugees so needing of nuance that they have nothing to say to us today, but find passages about homosexuality crystal clear? In short, do we find passages, the following of which would cost us our comforts, hopelessly ambiguous while finding those which do not directly affect our comforts easy to understand and apply? If we apply these tests and find ourselves, in a moment of unfettered honesty, answering them affirmatively, we just might be one of those whom Kierkegaard had in mind when he said we desire to be see ourselves as “good Christians” without the Bible coming to close. And, if you’re like me, you must admit that, altogether too often, Kierkegaard has named us for what we are.

May God grant us conversion of our imaginations so that we might be able to envision and to embody the imitation of Christ!

Posted Sep 25, 2017

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