Weekly Edgework #90 - March 20, 2006

From Word to Life

One of the devil’s finest pieces of work is getting people to spend three nights a week in Bible studies. (Subversive Spirituality, by Eugene Peterson, p. 207)

This quotation by Eugene Peterson may come as a surprise to many of his readers. He is well known for his paraphrase of the New Testament into layman’s language, known as The Message. In 2002 he also completed a similar work on the Old Testament so that The Message Bible is now available as well. Peterson is both a Greek and Hebrew scholar and has pastored for thirty years. There is no doubt that the Bible has been the warp and woof of his entire life. Why would he suggest that getting people to attend Bible studies three times a week is the devil’s finest work?

When I read this statement, I immediately sensed that Peterson had put into words thoughts that I probably would not have had the courage to write. Although I do not come close to having spent as much time or creative energy with the Bible as Peterson has, I have had my turn at bat as well. From as early on as I remember I was memorizing Bible verses in Sunday School and learning all the stories contained in the Old and New Testament.

After a crisis conversion in my mid-teens, my parents bought me my own King James Bible, which I began to devour with a passion. By the time I entered Bible School in 1964 I had become aware of “the battle for the Bible.” The Revised Standard Version (RSV) had already been published in 1952 and a whole raft of new translations and paraphrases had emerged in its wake – each with its advocates and detractors.

Those were tumultuous times with respect to the Bible. The question of which translation or paraphrase to use divided families and churches and provided fodder for a lot of animated debates. The preferred translation of most of my seminary professors in the late 1970s was the RSV, so that naturally became my preference as well. But when I began teaching at Steinbach Bible College in 1983 I soon realized that most of my students were using the New International Version (NIV) which had come out in 1978. While I agreed that the NIV text was more readable that the RSV, I felt perhaps like the earlier defenders of the KJV. The RSV was the Bible I knew and I found adapting to a new translation difficult. Nevertheless, I was soon using the NIV in my classes.

By now I have dozens of Bibles on my shelf, not only in many English translations and paraphrases, but in a variety of languages including German, Spanish, Greek and Hebrew. You might say that I have a vested interest in the Bible. So why do I feel a certain kind of affinity with Peterson’s statement about frequent Bible studies being a work of the devil?

Peterson goes on to explain that the problem arises from the notion that Bible study is the Christian thing to do. In other words, for many it has become an end in itself. The more Bible study, the better! So when you ask someone about how their spiritual life is going you can grade them according to how much time they spend reading the Bible. The assumption is that the way to grow as a Christian is to “Read your Bible, pray every day,” as the old Sunday School chorus had it.

However, by this time in my life I have been forced to admit, along with Eugene Peterson, that many people who read their Bibles frequently and attend Bible studies regularly do not necessarily grow spiritually. Knowing the Bible simply does not guarantee spiritual maturity – nor an assurance that its message penetrates the heart. Recently, at a small group discussion about how faith meets life, a man in his early fifties lost his cool. “How come?” he exploded, “I’ve been to Bible studies all my life and this is the first time I have ever been able to make any connection between the Bible and where I actually live on the ground!”

There are at least two problems with many Bible studies that I know of. The first is that they are designed to simply reaffirm what we already know – to reassure all present that they are still on solid ground. The second is that leaders keep participants in the biblical text too long. That is to say that before any serious dialogue can take place about how the truth learned affects life, time is up. And so the devil delights in us agreeing to get together again to do it all over again – getting to know our Bibles better, but seldom relating the Bible to issues of life that really matter.

Bible studies can be a distraction from authentic Christian living. When they keep us going in circles over familiar territory – nailing down foundations – they have lost most of their usefulness. As Peterson says, The Bible is there to be lived…Most Christians know far more of the Bible than they’re living. They should be studying it less, not more. p.207) Studying the Word can become an addiction if it doesn’t move into life – an addiction that can hinder, or at least distract us, from growing spiritually. Some people should stop reading their Bibles for a while as they begin working on some foundational shifts God is calling them to. My hunch is that after such an experience they would return to the biblical text with less bravado and an enhanced desire for authentic rejuvenation of faith where it touches life. At least that is how it is working for me.

I am encouraged by some of the dynamic Bible studies happening among our youth. They are not bored insiders going over the same biblical texts again and again making sure their foundations are intact. From where I sit I see them bringing the Word to life and letting it rip their hearts open. It gives me hope that the living Word truly continues to dwell among us.