I’ve got a pop quiz for you. Take out a paper and number it one to ten. No phones. Go.
- What is the capital of Alaska?
- What year did WW1 end?
- What was the official language of Vietnam until 1954?
- Who was the 19th president of the US?
- When was the Louisiana Purchase made?
- What two countries make up the former Rhodesia?
- What was the currency of Germany before the European Union?
- What countries held the 1956 Olympics?
- What state was Custer’s Last Stand in?
- When did the War of 1812 begin?
How do you think you did? In case you want to answers, here they are.
- Rutherford B Hayes
- Zambia and Zimbabwe
- Deutsche Mark
- Italy and Australia
The thing is, most of us probably learned many of those answers at some point in our lives. But most of it didn’t stick. We might know the capital of Alaska if we know someone who lives there, or we’re deep into the study of the tundra fox, or we really, really like Jack London. (I don’t. The dog always dies.) Or if you, like me, memorized all the capitals in grade school and strangely retained ALL of that information while still unable to recall what day your spouse said he needed an airport ride.
I don’t know most Olympic cities, but I’ll never forget Kerri Strug or seeing Jesse Owens Allee in Berlin, mere weeks after its naming, and knowing the stories of courage that went with those names.
Those things stick. Those stories strike something in us when their courage speaks to our hearts.
As anyone who really knows me knows, my New Year’s Eve tradition is watching the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, extended editions, every year. (That’s my idea of a party.) One of the most moving parts in the entire twelve hours or so is Sam’s speech on the ramparts of Osgiliath, explaining why he suddenly comprehends the power of stories.
“Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back. Only they didn’t, because they were holding on to something…”
It’s those stories that matter—the ones that show us the best, and worst, of ourselves. The ones that point us toward the values we know matter but forget in our daily busyness, where knowing things like the capital of Alaska, or the balance in our bank account and exactly where that $4.19 was spent, appear larger than they ought to.
It’s the big themes, interweaving, becoming complex, challenging my assumptions, and coming out strong that attract me, especially because of, or in spite of, the daily minutiae that clogs our spiritual arteries.
I think we often approach the Bible too much like it’s a pop quiz of facts. We believe we’re supposed to know instinctively who begat whom, which Gospel harbors the story of Zacchaeus, and what order the minor prophets are in, or that a thing called “minor prophets” exists.
Yet this ends up with a “forest for the trees” form of discipleship—a knowledge of Scripture that might be thorough in its ability to quote chapter and verse, but shallow indeed in its ability to sustain faith and life in a windy world.
Scot McKnight believes that, “God did not give us the Bible so we could master him or it but so we could be mastered by it,” and I wonder if that is not closer to what God intended with his word to us. Perhaps the idea of Scripture is not so much to know it in minute detail as to know God by and through it, and, therefore, to know ourselves and our world.
Some research into our discipleship shows a depressing link between our attitudes toward knowing the Bible and our actual ability to grasp it.
“Because they know they’ll be told what is important each week, many Christians feel little need to explore the Bible on their own . . . Many Christians believe they are incapable of taking much from the Bible. At the same time, the same Christians tend to believe they know and understand Scripture because they have heard it presented so many times. So these people leave church after a really good speech feeling like their faith has been strengthened. But when they try to put those same ideas into play in the real world, they can’t quite figure out how to do it. They begin to think they are the problem.” Doug Pagitt, Preaching Reimagined
The more we hear the Bible, the more we think we know it. The more we realize we don’t know it, the worse we feel about that. The worse we feel, the less we read and know. The cycle continues. People who think they’re the problem don’t tend to have a lot of motivation to overcome the problem.
Maybe we’re reading the room, and the Scriptures, wrong.
A second issue with this focus on learning chapter and verse, and thinking we’ve learned the Bible because we listen to people talk about it, is the tendency for so many of us to choose our doctrines based on those verses we’ve learned or heard. We haven’t learned to read for overarching themes, to search for the big picture ideas, and so we manufacture our beliefs over a twenty-minute span on one or two verses—and subsequently defend them aggressively over coffee Twitter.
This seems backward.
If we read God’s word ultimately to know God, why do we spend so much more of our time formulating our ideas of what God wants and what we must do and so much less discerning what he’s telling us about who he is?
Learning who he is inevitably leads us to what he wants us to be and do. We cannot see his passion for justice and not do something. We can’t hear his heart for his people and not act. We can’t taste and see that he is good without wanting to be good ourselves.
But getting that the other way around never works. Diving into God’s words to come out with a recipe for behavior or doctrine works as well as diving into the ocean and hoping to surface with a fully cooked lobster dinner.
This is my Scripture goal for 2020, and my preaching goal as well. I want to see the forest. I want to walk beneath its shade and experience the whole of it, while certainly looking at the trees themselves. I think it will enhance the enjoyment of and appreciation for their individuality to focus on their common purpose. What are the great themes that hold all of Scripture together? How do they help me to know God by and through them, and therefore to know myself and my world? I’m looking forward to diving in.
Photo Credit: Jill Richardson