Tuesday with Michael Spencer
From 2008 and edited by CM
I’m not a literature scholar, but I play one in the classroom several hours a week. That is, when I’m not teaching the Bible to kids from all over America and the world, I teach AP English. Mostly Shakespeare and poetry. The interaction of the two brings some stimulating questions to my mind from time to time.
For example, can you study a text too much?
Let’s say that you came to my house and I had 1500 volumes of books, almost all on Hamlet and related subjects. Extensive reference materials. Everything ever written about the play. Interpretations and commentaries and more interpretations. A small ocean of Hamlet.
You noted that I read Hamlet systematically every day. You noticed that I gave talks on Hamlet and wrote may pages of articles and comments of my own on Hamlet.
One day you begin reading some of my work on Hamlet, and after a while, a thought crosses your mind. Eventually, you look me up to ask me the question that’s presented itself.
Do I believe that everything I see in Hamlet is really there? Or, by studying Hamlet to the extent that I have, do I run the risk of having a lot more to say about Hamlet than is actually in Hamlet? Have I studied a text to the point I’ve lost the perspective of simple, direct meaning in pursuit of what only scholars can know?
In other words, if Shakespeare came into my library, read my articles and listened to my lectures, would he say “Spot on. Keep at it?” Or would he say “Huh? You’ve got to be kidding? Where did you come up with this?”
Can you study a text too much? Too deeply? With too much background? Too much insight? Finding way more than is actually there in the text?
Here’s another turn of the screw for me. I teach Bible Survey, and it’s a four quarter class. That’s basically 36 weeks, five hours a week. 180 hours. Now many of my students are absolute beginners. (The ones that aren’t are given the option of an advanced class.) Many are from other religions and cultures.
I don’t need 180 hours to teach the basic story and message of the Bible to my beginners. I could do it in 9 weeks. I could do it in two weeks actually.
Sometimes when we’re off in some of the less relevant parts of the Bible- the various goings on in David’s family for example- I am genuinely concerned that the main message is getting obscured in all the other material I am teaching. I’d love to teach that “seminar” and keep the main thing the main thing. The rape of Tamar is a fine story and it’s part of our sinful history, but do my Buddhists need to know it in the same course with the gospels?
I have other concerns as well. Preachers find things in the Bible all the time that I don’t think are there. They call them “principles,” and they look great in a book or PowerPoint, but I’m just not very convinced.
Into this I can throw a lot of other people who pull rabbits out of the Biblical hat for a living.
Does the Bible say all those things that people say it says about politics? Environmentalism? Morals? Raising kids? Success? Prosperity? Health? The future? Global warming? Sex? Scheduled infant feedings? Pokemon? Harry Potter?
Some say that the Sermon on the Mount approves of civil unions between gays. Really? I’ve heard it said that there’s a “Jesus diet” in there. Hope it works better for me than it did for them, by the looks of things.
Is all that theology I keep hearing from the theological types really all there? I don’t mean there in some form that you can remix, cook, stir, add, microwave, season and serve as whatever dish you want. I mean is what the prosperity teachers see in all those books really there? Do you need Barth’s dogmatics to explain the Bible?
Are all of our political and social agendas really in the Bible? All the psychology of Biblical counselors? All the science of the creationists? All the distinctives of the various denominations?
Now I have as much admiration for lifelong Bible study as you can have. I’ve given the study of the Bible years of my life and the major portion of my education and energies.
I know it has riches and transforming power. I know it is a full library of doctrine and a wonderful collection of law, literature and liturgy.
I believe it is God’s inspired word. It’s authoritative for my faith.
But I suspect we’ve looked too closely, and seen a lot that’s not there. I believe we find, arrange, display, demonstrate and defend a lot that isn’t really plainly taught in scripture. I am afraid the Bible is a Rorschach test for many people, and what the see isn’t clouds. It’s rabbits and a train and…..
I believe that if we take the Bible as literature, we would be able to say something like this:
The Bible is an extensive collection of literature that, when taken together, presents the story Christians call the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Christians believe this book is inspired by God and interpreted by the Spirit of God, but it remains a book written by human authors and understood primarily in the obvious ways we approach any literature. The message of the Bible answers the biggest, most important and most vital of life’s questions and proclaims God’s saving message to all persons. The rich literary contents of the Bible can occupy anyone with much study, but in its basic message- its essential, Christ-centered message — there is a remarkable directness and brevity. You do not have to be an expert on first century Judaism or the sociology of sacrificial systems to understand the Bible. The message is ably summarized in the Gospels and elsewhere in the New Testament. Even a child can understand it, believe it and live it.
If we leave the impression that the Bible needs an army of PhDs, thousands of brilliant preachers with multiple degrees each or a library of commentaries to be understood, proclaimed and applied, we’re distorting the truth.
Thank God for all the knowledge we have about the Bible, but we’re not gnostics looking for the “secret message” in between the lines. It’s a book, with a plot, a story and characters. Read it — or skim it with some help — get the New Testament message clear, and you are good to go, grow and live.
In fact, what we need is more reminding, recollecting and repeating of the Bible’s message, and less addition to that message.
Study it less? Maybe. Maybe live it, live out of it, communicate it and teach it more. But what we’re looking for in the Bible is fully and completely there in the one Paul said he always preached — Christ Jesus: the crucified Lord.