December 5, 2020

Mondays with Michael Spencer: May 23, 2016


Magic Spectacles, Photo by Alan Parkinson

Mondays with Michael Spencer: May 23, 2016

Today we continue a series of Monday posts with excerpts of Michael Spencer’s thoughts about the Bible and what it does and does not promise to do for us.

• • •

I believe most Christians use the word “inspiration” to mean “the Bible is a magic book, where God speaks to us in unusual ways.”

By this they mean that the contents of the Bible–the verses–have unusual power when read or applied. So if we were to transfer this idea to another book, and treat it as we treat the Bible, it might be like this: If we considered Walden to be inspired in the typical evangelical way, we would not be looking for the big ideas or the main point in Thoreau’s book, but we would be examining particular sentences to see if they “spoke to us.” The actual text of Walden would be secondary to our use of verses.

So on, let’s say, the matter of changing jobs, we might find a sentence that says, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation,” and we would conclude that this verse is God telling us to change jobs. Or another sentence might say, “I left my job and moved to the woods.” This, we would say, is God speaking to us. Now we might be able to read the entire book and sustain that conclusion, or we might find–if we studied better–that the book didn’t sustain that particular use of an individual sentence. It wouldn’t really matter, however, to most of us, because God used the verse to speak to us, and that is the way we read the Bible.

Or, for further example, say someone is facing a troubled marriage. He reads and discovers a sentence in Walden that says, “I did not speak to another person for over a month.” From this, he concludes that God is telling him to not argue with his spouse. The fact that this is a universe away from what Thoreau meant with that sentence would be irrelevant. This is how we would be using Walden as a “magic book.” Recognize the method? I think we all do.

If we were committed to the “magic book” approach and someone were to teach Walden as a whole, telling us the main ideas and message in the book, we might not consider that particularly impressive. It is nice to know what the book says, we would say, but the use of the book as a “magic text” doesn’t depend at all on understanding the meaning of the overall book, or the message Thoreau was conveying. Introductions and analysis of the book as a whole would almost be a secondary, and mostly useless, exercise in comparison to the more exciting and personal “magic book” use of Walden. We might be confident, in fact, that the ordinary reader can handle the “inspired Walden” with far more relevance for his life than the educated scholar handles the same book, because the scholar doesn’t believe that the sentences contain the power. So ignorance is no barrier in the magic book approach. Recognize that, too? Uh-huh.

I hope you can see the parallels here with our use of the Bible, and the many “magic book” methods that are commonly used to present the Christian life as growing out of the Bible. Take a recent Joel Osteen sermon I heard.

In the message, Osteen used part of the story of Elijah. God told Elijah that ravens would bring him food at a certain brook. From this, Osteen preached that God will provide us what we need to be blessed if we show up at the right place in life and look for God’s blessing. This dubious use of the Bible is applauded within evangelicalism as completely appropriate because it is “magic bookism,” and it speaks to us about our lives and concerns, which are always tantamount in our minds. Yet it is hardly a leap to say that this grabbing of a few verses and using them as the basis for a mystical principle for being blessed is a very strange way to approach the Bible’s message to us. But it honors the Bible as a “magic book”, and far more people are listening to Joel Osteen, a man who arguably couldn’t present an introduction/exposition of any Biblical book if asked to do so, than are listening to preachers and teachers who understand what the Bible is and is saying.

• • •

Photo by Alan Parkinson at Flickr. Creative Commons License


  1. Ronald Avra says

    Frequently, the “magic book” approach identifies our will as God’s will, then utilizes select Bible verses in an attempt to enforce our will on our environment. This closes our hearts and minds to what our God and Father’s will is, blinds us, and leads us further from His presence and kingdom.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Bible-as-Grimoire of unconnected one-verse Magick spells and Divination oracles.

  2. Question, and I truly don’t intend this to be snarky.

    Prosperity aside what’s the difference between what Osteen did in this example (which is to take an OT story and mine it for something that goes deeper than surface level), and what much of the early church did in terms of allegory? Violent conquest became “conquering the soul”, dashing babies heads against rocks became “kill sin before it grows and flourishes”, etc. Not every early church allegorization is a nice clean principle free “look I found Jesus in the OT”, though it’s driven by their understanding of the gospel (and demonstrates they they aren’t bound by a flat-Bible understanding).

    Yes, one is prosperity driven – it reveals a belief that coded in every story are all the keys to “success” just waiting to be mined. But is the hermeneutical approach sound (call it allegorical?), just with bad results?

    • …in short, not much. That part jumped out at me as well, I may respond more later.

    • Robert F says

      It’s not much different, at least in methodology, and that’s exactly why we can’t always use the Church of the Church Father’s age as a guide for determining what God is saying to us in the present, whether through Scripture or otherwise.

      And remember, because of the absence of good cultural and social historiography in those centuries, a second century commentator from a different culture, or even one only a few decades away from the text’s origin, had no better access to the cultural mindset and habits that produced it than we do today; in fact, often much less access, since the modern era has the tools of a far more scientifically resourced cultural and social historiography.

    • The big difference is in the center of the allegory (or better yet, typology). If you look at how the NT writers used the OT, they interpret it as a foreshadowing and reflection of Christ. Medievals, OTOH, tended to go for morals (as noted in the examples above), whereas moderns tend to read ourselves into it.

      • Heather Angus says

        OK, but how does this work? Take the story of Elijah being fed by ravens. To interpret it as the NT writers did, do we say that this prefigures Christ when the Spirit drove Him into the wilderness after His baptism, and “He was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to Him.” The medievals would say — what? Maybe that ravens are symbols of the devil, but even the devil’s servants are overcome and pressed into service of Elijah, the man of God. And moderns, like, oh, for instance, me: The story says that God cares for those who are doing His work, even to the point that nature, at God’s direction, will support such a person.

        Michael’s point that we shouldn’t play “magic verse” or duelling scriptures” is a good one in general, but I don’t quite see that we can look the “big idea” or the “main point” of the Bible and then interpret everything in its light without diluting the meaning of everything in it. The “main point” of the OT, I suppose, is that God wants His Chosen People to worship Him, in a covenant relationship. The story of Elijah and the ravens is intended to illustrate this by showing how a true believer and prophet of God is cared for lovingly. So are you saying that it would be wrong if I took that story and tried to apply it to my own life situation? Seems to me that’s type of application was what the OT writer was aiming for.

        • But Christ Himself said that unless we read the Bible with *Him* as the “big idea”, we will miss the point entirely (John 5:39-40, Luke 24:36-37).

          The important thing is not to read *every* OT story in this manner, but to look for key symbols that are tied to Christ – Christ as Israel, Christ as High Priest, Christ as Suffering Servant, Christ as the fulfillment of the Temple, etc. Within the NT, the easiest examples of this type of Bible reading can be found in the book of Hebrews. For a more modern theological POV, try any of the books on exegesis by Graeme Goldsworthy.

    • Christiane says

      Hi Mike H.

      when you wrote about ” Violent conquest became “conquering the soul”, dashing babies heads against rocks became “kill sin before it grows and flourishes”, etc. “,
      you attributed that understanding as originating with the early Church . . . but if you speak with a Jewish rabbi, you will find that in Judaism, similar themes and meanings are observed also

      ‘allegory’ is only one of the patterns of language we find in sacred Scripture . . . the fundamentalists seem to have a need to be ‘literal’ when they want to be and to claim that Christ was using metaphors and similes at other times . . .

      I’ve always thought that is anyone really wanted to trace the earliest Church views on sacred Scripture, go to the five main centers of Christianity as it came out from Jerusalem . . . find in each of those traditions what is shared, and you will have some idea of what likely was passed on from the first Christians in Jerusalem . . . and YES, you can expect to examine the liturgies of these early traditions for similarities, as much of sacred Scripture had not yet been collated by the early Councils of the Church . . . the Church Councils depended on a study of what was shared in order to determine the canon of the New Testament for a reason . . . and I think their reasoning was sound, yes

      followers of Osteen? if they are looking for quick fixes to their woes, I don’t think they will find them in the legacy of the early Church’s understanding of sacred Scripture, no

  3. The worse thing that ever happened to the Bible was the chapter/verse format Of course there were formatted divisions in ancient versions of the text but if modern readers were forced to treat each book as an entirety it would be much better for our actual understanding. For example the gospel writers all have individual points of view that are totally obscured by proof texting and quote mining.

    But “magic bookism” is not always the minister’s fault. What makes a church congregation more restless than long stretches of Bible reading?

    • Rick Ro. says

      Good point.

      I’ve found Max Lucado’s take on the Bible – called The Story – interesting in that aspect. He (and Randy Freeze) have taken the Bible and laid it out chronologically, without verse numbers, so that it reads like a novel.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Gives a fresh perspective (actually the original ancient one).

        Anything that gives us a look from another (unconventional) angle is a good idea.

      • I’d be interested in a chronological bible based on when things were written/modified, as opposed to story wise chronologically.

        • >>I’d be interested in a chronological bible based on when things were written/modified . . .

          We don’t have enough information for that, and if we did it would likely be so convoluted and footnoted as to be unreadable except by academics. Many of the stories and accounts most likely began as oral tradition memorized and passed on. The written accounts probably went thru revision and editing more than once, and heavily so after the Babylonian captivity. All we have at this point is educated guesses, which are probably pretty good but still subject to debate. I think it all hangs together as is well enough for our purposes if we accept its probable refinement over time with all the contradictions and agendas mixed in. There are chronological Bibles available that are close enough for all practical purposes. The main story still comes thru.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I have also wondered the same about a “chronological Koran”, with the Suras arranged in the order of origin instead of the traditional order. (Might be an easier project with the Koran, as it originated more as a whole.) Arranged that way, you might be able to see patterns and development over time.

  4. And so I get to use my new word, “grimoire”, which I believe it was HUG taught me recently, but someone here. I’m not so sure that what Michael is describing is a magical grimoire so much as a book of divination, tho the two are related. In context of his example, I would say that in comparison to Walden, many would consider the Bible to have supernatural qualities, and I must say that I consider the Bible to be not only qualitatively different from Walden, but from every other book ever written, including Scripture from all other cultures, and if you want to call that supernatural I won’t object. Just my opinion. I would point to a premiere verse used sometimes for good and sometimes not so good, “I can do all things thru Christ who strengthens me!”

    I am going to jump to Joel Osteen’s defense here. It bothers me to see him offered up as whipping boy for all things Evangelical, and there are some here who participate. I don’t know if Joel self-identifies as Evangelical, but he doesn’t really fit the picture even if his books sell in Christian book stores. I would call him a non-denominational preacher and leave it at that. I don’t mind if he self-identifies as Christian. As to mining the Bible for the Prosperity Gospel, why not go to the prime source where God himself spells it out at the end of Deuteronomy and the beginning of Joshua. Follow these rules and you will be blessed and prosper. In many ways, almost the whole of the so called Old Testament is about this deal struck with the children of Israel for prosperity, and what happens when the deal is broken. In many ways for many people, only the set of rules has changed. I would say Osteen practices what he preaches and it seems to work pretty well for him, and apparently well enough for now for the many thousands who find his teachings beneficial.

    The main exception to the Prosperity Gospel offered in the Hebrew Scriptures I can think of is the book of Job, and this book appears to primarily be about questioning this concept. I learned early on that Job is considered by many as the earliest writing of the whole Old Testament, tho I have never understood the reasoning behind this. Highly interesting to me is a more recent considered opinion that it may be the latest writing we have in the O.T. canon. That makes more sense to me. The Prosperity Gospel is a good fit with cultures and peoples starting out on their spiritual journey. We tell children, behave and you can go to Disney Land, and it generally works. Eat your broccoli and you can have dessert. Until we grow up a bit and life comes along to teach us that it ain’t necessarily so. Job and his friends thrash that one out in a way that perhaps Joel and his friends are not quite capable of as yet.

    • Osteen bothers me a lot less than men like Mike Bickle. Osteen wants to see people be happy. We need that. Moralistic therapeutic deism is probably a coping mechanism out of self-defense for many. It certainly beats fundamentalists ranting and raving and raising an army of Joel.

  5. “because it is “magic bookism,” and it speaks to us about our lives and concerns, which are always tantamount in our minds.”

    This is where the allegory used by the Church Fathers is different. From:

    “Read the Bible within the context and practice of prayer, worship, and spiritual formation. The church fathers’ insistence on the indissoluble connection between spiritual health, life in the church, and commentary on the church’s book rebukes the modern tendency to separate scholarship from spirituality and worship”

    So to look at OT passages and spiritualise the narrative that would have had no current literal use, as mentioned above, was OK. The reason being that these “irrelevant” passages could be used by the Holy Spirit to encourage our formation into the end goal, being transformed into an image of Christ.

    How does that compare to Osteen’s “God will bless me stuff ?” Does it reflect Elijah’s life being relelvant to ours ?

    Elijah lived in the wilderness or outskirts, I think, spent time in prayer and probably lived a monastic type of life. He also had a special call & was a fugitive. Maybe some of that figures in God’s special blessing for him.
    As to the Deuteronomy passages on blessing & cursing, this was for Israel, it is a shadow for us. Why not read it to the Coptic or Pakistani Christians being martyred ?

    We are blessed and have all things in Christ. He takes our curse we deserve adn we have whatever blessings He so desires to give us during life.

  6. I remember reading a novel where one of the characters did this with Moby Dick: for every occasion he had a ‘relevant’ quote. Can’t think what it was now (nor how to get Google to tell me).

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Doesn’t it really burn you when all you remember about a story is one minor scene or feature that noboby bothered to do a search index on? Happens to me all the time.