Weekly Edgework #41 - Apr. 11, 2005

Beyond Pigeonholes

Remember that the Pharisees were the great pigeonholers and that Jesus told them that many who came out last in their framework would come out first in his (A New Kind of Christian, Brian McLaren, 47).

I think when you let go of the Bible as God’s answer book, you get it back as something so much better (McLaren, 52).

The best way to discourage serious Bible study is to make the Bible an answer book – a dictionary listing all possible questions about faith and life people might have, followed by singular answers for every question. I have heard of a few intellectuals who study their dictionaries regularly and in great detail. But for most of us such an endeavor would end in frustration and boredom before we got to the “B” section.

Perhaps that is why most people I know in the church have never become serious students of the Bible, and most of those who have given it a try have given up a long time ago. If one views the Bible as “God’s rule book, God’s easy-step instruction book, or God’s book of morals for all occasions” (McLaren, 52), it is understandable why it would only be consulted on occasion in order to get a specific bit of information.

One of the ways this view of the Bible was inculcated in my life was through the memorization of Bible verses. But surely, you might protest, putting Bible verses to memory is a good thing, is it not? If you don’t think so, memorize Psalm 119:11, Thy word have I hid in my heart that I might not sin against thee. But I wonder whether the Psalmist who wrote those words had the same thing in mind as those who thrive on memorizing isolated Scripture texts like we were taught to do, complete with where it is found in God’s massive dictionary? The fact is, that when the words quoted above were written by the Psalmist, Jewish Scriptures had not yet been divided into chapters and verses.

Another way of re-enforcing the view of the “Bible as Dictionary”, in my experience, was the use of devotional booklets, like “Daily Bread”. I remember the time when reading the Daily Bread was a test of orthodoxy and faithfulness in my church circles. What a shame to have to admit to not having read the carefully selected text for the day, and the little story to go with it, as well as a poem and a prayer! It was a sign of spiritual slippage.

Now I will grant that the practice of memorizing special Bible verses and reading pre-packaged “nuggets of truth” may be good for starters. But when a supposedly mature Christian continues to spout isolated Bible verses and quote devotional booklets as fire-proof answers to any and every question that arises, something is missing. The problem lies behind these practices. It is the assumption that the Bible is an encyclopedic answer book. And that leads invariably to the notion that the more questions and answers you can tuck away neatly in your mind the closer you will come to God’s ultimate truth.

But there are some deadly flaws embedded in such a pigeonholing enterprise. For one, these unique little nuggets are often handled as tid-bits of truth without reference to the context in which they are found. Many times in my adult experience when I was engaged in a serious study of the Bible I had to adjust the meaning I had associated with a particular verse I had memorized as a child – sometimes drastically. When seen as a segment of a whole story or theological argument, whole new dimensions of truth began to emerge from the verse I had once forced into a pigeonhole through a questionable grid and labeled as absolute truth.

Another flaw to pigeonholing is that this piecemeal approach to the Bible invariably means that we become very selective in our exposure to the Scriptures. We choose a limited number of isolated texts, dump them in a hopper and circulate them through our ecclesiastical machinery. And in the process we create an insider language that only the well-initiated can understand – a type of “Christian-eze”. It has often been customary in church circles to accuse people of other faith perspectives of only reading and applying those parts of Scripture that agree with their preconceived worldviews. It has become obvious to me that this selective process is a great temptation in any faith tradition, including the one I grew up in.

Our biblical interpretations, especially when they are based on the pigeonholing principle, often reveal more about us than they do about the Bible itself. When the curtain is drawn back, it is not that hard to see how we tend to go to the Bible to scavenge for bits of information that might support the comfort zones of our particular worldviews. Of course that is easier to see in hindsight than in our present context. A classic example is how evangelical, Bible-thumping Christians justified slavery 150 years ago in the United States. And now we take pride in saying they were dead wrong in their conclusions. Should that not raise a holy fear in us? If we use the same selective process of biblical interpretation they did back then, is it not conceivable that we could be dead wrong about some issues in our present time? Perhaps future generations will rise up to condemn our biblical conclusions like we now condemn the institution of slavery.

We must let go of the Bible as a modern encyclopedia containing all the answers to faith and life given in universal black and white for all who know where to find the right entry.

When we let it go as a modern answer book, we get to discover it for what it really is: an ancient book of incredible spiritual value for us, a kind of universal and cosmic history, a book that tells us who we are and what story we find ourselves in so that we know what to do and how to live. That letting go is going to be hard…(McLaren, 52).