October 25, 2020

iMonk: The “Magic Book” Approach to the Bible


From the classic Michael Spencer post, Magic Books, Grocery Lists and Silent Messiahs: How rightly approaching the Bible shapes the entire Christian Life

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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.


  1. Marcus Johnson says

    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.

    So, Michael Spencer is saying that God is speaking to me through Walden, telling me to drop my grad program and move to the woods to live life as a hermit? I can accept that. Thanks, Chaplain Mike for posting that for me. Hopefully, the shack I built in the woods will have a high-speed connection, so I can continue to pull sentences like this from the posts and use them to make major life decisions.

    • No, Michael is saying we should not play the sortes Virgilianae with the Bible.

    • Marcus Johnson says

      I know, Martha. But it is Sunday afternoon, and I have to have a little bit of fun, right?

      Also, thanks for using sortes Virgilianae in a sentence; it sounds so much classier than “proof-texting.”

  2. Most know the old joke. A devotee of this method needs advice on a “thorny issue” of some sort. So, to get such advice, he opens “The Word” and places his finger on this verse: “Judas went out and hanged himself.” Well, maybe that wasn’t the best advice for him (I’d say not!), so he tries again. Opening “The Word” this time, his finger lights on the verse: “Go, and do likewise.”

    Yes, this surely represents a faithful and intelligent approach to the Bible, or, else, it illustrates Michael’s point. I’ll opt for the latter.

  3. What is the classic joke about the man in the hotel room flipping through the Gideon bible to find passage to help with his depression. And the two version he came across were :

    Matt 27:5b – and he went and hanged himself.
    Luke 10:37 – “Go and do likewise”

  4. I understand what Spencer is saying here: the Bible should not be used as a method of divination or as an oracle, in lieu of casting the runes or the I Ching; context, narrative arc and thrust are essential to any meaning that the Bible conveys, and require responsible interpretation. Got it, got it, got it; agree, agree, agree. What alarms me a little is when he suggests that the ordinary reader is incompetent to the task of unpacking the contextual meaning of the Bible in comparison to the educated scholar. For one thing, while the scholar may have an advantage in certain respects about certain things, sometimes specialists, which is what a Biblical scholar is, can be blinded by their own expertise, missing the forest for the trees; for instance, I think much of the so-called higher textual criticism of the 20th century, by breaking up the Biblical texts into tiny pericopes and then extracting them from the Biblical narratives in attempt to establish their authenticity and analyze their meaning as individual units, disintegrated the narrative stream of storytelling in the Bible, which is really a scholarly version of the wrongheaded approach to the Bible that Spencer labels “magical.” Biblical scholarship and hermeneutics have not recovered from their methodology to this day, although narrative theology has made a valiant attempt. For another thing, I find the idea that we have to depend on a class of experts, at one time the priestly class but now the scholarly one, to interpret the Bible for us to be taking an approach exactly opposite to that taken by the Reformers. Luther translated the Bible into the vernacular German because he believed that its meanings and interpretations should not be left solely in the hands of hierophants; in our context, Biblical scholars are nothing if not hierophants. We can all read stories, and we can all interpret them in responsible and sober ways; and if we don’t all agree, so be it. The only experts I’m willing to take counsel from in my own appropriation of the Biblical narratives are the ones who have made a commitment to Jesus as their Living Lord, and who approach the texts with the intention of finding him in them.

    • Robert,

      I thinkest thou dost protest over-much.

      Michael’s back-handed remark was against the attitude that the “ordinary” and “ignorant” reader with the “magic book” approach has the advantage over the educated scholar who does not approach the text as “magical”.


      • Tom (aka Volkmar),
        I did misread what Spencer wrote; mea culpa. However, I do not think that an “ordinary” reader suffers from the kind of disadvantage that an “ignorant” reader would; in fact, I think the Bible has a preferential option (to borrow liberation theology terminology) for “ordinary” over “scholarly” or “expert” readers.

        • Agreed, Robert F. “Expert” and “scholarly” are fine, but the Bible is certainly intended to be accessible to “ordinary” readers, too.

          • Agreement with Robert and Rick.

            … just as also our dear brother Paul wrote to you, according to the wisdom given to him, speaking of these things in all his letters. Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures.


  5. Good post.

    No magic in that book. But some do look at it that way. The Bible was (is) a re-calibration of that preached Word that creates faith in the hearing of the gospel.

    There certainly is power…but no magic. Magic is not necessary for the Living God.

  6. Michael was dancing around the edges of a larger philosophical issue which is the inductive approach to anything. The magic book approach is more than a vulgar oracle, it is a misunderstanding of argument. A great deal of the Reformed writings near the turn of the twentieth century (especially Princetonian writings) argued that the Bible was a collection of facts that could be scientifically mined for theological knowledge in the same way one approaches the natural sciences. This is complete rubbish, but one still sees vestiges of this approach in some circles.

    • This may have been true of followers of Calvin and Zwingli, who were both considered “Humanists” along the lines of Erasmus. Luther was not a humanist and had a falling out with Erasmus, particularly evident in the “Bondage of the Will” disputation. Therefore, caution is needed in the use of the word “reformer”. Luther was a reformer, but definitely not “reformed”.

      • However, Luther did use the tools of humanist scholarship in rejecting the apocrypha as part of the canon. I wonder whether he didn’t set a bad precedent in making the canon subject to scholarly validation, a precedent that ultimately lead to the deconstruction of the entire Biblical text by later textual critics.


        • I think you’re right, that Luther was influenced by early humanism. Luther did quote from the Apocrypha. I wonder when that changed. So much of Luther changed over time.

      • Sorry, I was specifically referring to “Reformed”, and mostly after 1850. I think the “magic book”, “cookbook”, and “repair manual” approach all share the same philosophical underpinnings.

    • I think your point is correct. Many view the bible as a collection of facts or principles, which implies the bible has no central theme, and Jesus, Moses, and others are merely contribuors or characters in the morality plays. This may be the cookbook or repair manual approach to scripture.

  7. It is increasingly difficult for me when I hear the Bible spoken of as “The Word of God”. Why is it so difficult for good folk to realize that the collection of writings we cherish are the Family’s words about the True Word of God –who is a Person?


  8. “Augustine heard the voice of a child singing a song, the words of which were, “Pick up and read. Pick up and read.” Confessions, Book VIII.

    Augustine takes the “Magic Book” approach to the Bible?

    • That’s the power of the Living God. To make things happen according to His will…sometimes in an incredible way.

    • A single well written and evocative line from any book can be of great significance. Otherwise we would have few memorable “quotes” with which to summarize great themes. As a habitual method for reading, however, an emphasis on quotes falls short.

      • CM,
        It’s clear from the context in the “Confessions” that it is more than simply a “single well written and evocative line;” rather, God was making that text come alive in a very special and personal way, he was speaking directly to Augustine through the text in a way meant only for him, and he directed Augustine to the text supernaturally. True, it is not a good habitual method for reading; certainly Augustine did not make it a practice to approach the Scriptures in that way. God defies our methods; and he refuses to be subject to divination. But there are instances when he wants us to put aside our intellectual pride and let him approach us in humbling ways. We should be open to that possibility, discerning but open. Else, in our pride, we would never hear him speak to us through the mouth of an ass when we very badly need to.

        • Agreed.

          It’s clear to me that Michael was objecting to a certain misuse of the single text method that is quite common in evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. His context is important for understanding his argument.

  9. I’m trying to differentiate between magical Biblicism and the Benedictan practice of “Lectio Divina”. Any thoughts?

    • Off the top of my (pretty ignorant) head, dumb ox, I’d say the difference is in context. Lectio divina focuses on one or a few verses, true, but as a way of understanding and applying scripture in depth, not as a fortune cookie. The next day’s reading, typically, would be the next verse or verses in the book you’ve chosen to read. Lectio divina’s purpose is to slow down our eyes and our heart; sortes Virgilianae, on the other hand, is a way to avoid practicing discernment.

  10. I’m open to correction here but I believe the practice of using versification didn’t take off until the Reformation. I believe the Geneva Bible was the first widely read in English to print each verse as a separate paragraph. This seems almost necessary for those who think in terms of single text. It may be related to the contemporary use of the sound bite in broadcast journalism.

  11. Randy Thompson says

    Our job is to be as intelligent as we can when reading the Bible, paying attention to context(s), cultural background, themes, where the text fits in the overall narrative, etc. etc. etc.

    However, having affirmed all the right exegetical things, I would want to argue that God is perfectly capable of speaking to us very personally while completely ignoring the context, cultural background, and all the rest, and does so often, if we have ears to hear. As a seminary graduate, I needed to learn how to “hear” God “speak” to me in Scripture, and a resource that helped me hugely in doing this was Charles Shepson’s powerful (and level-headed) book, “Knowing the Will of God.”

    Our job is to use our heads and be responsible. God’s job is to speak to us and guide us. We need to both be responsible, and to let God be God. If God chooses to crash through the Biblical text to make contact with us, I’m wide open to it.

    • I agree, Randy. There have been Bible verses that leapt off the page and stabbed me. I didn’t ask for the archaeological background or linguistic explication before I responded to them. However, I think it’s wisest on the whole to take those “personal words” as an invitation to change our hearts and seek God, then use our brains to figure out how a changed heart will affect where I work, who I marry, and what color I’ll paint my living room.

  12. This type of bible reading ties in a lot with a persons view of God and the devil. The great proof-texters that I know are also the ones who claim that wanting to sleep in on Sunday is the work of the devil, he’s trying to get a foothold. Every incident in life has some meaning imparted by God, the magic man who wrote the magic book. Is it possible that stubbing your toe is just that, stubbing your toe; not some message about watching your step in this life since someone is out to get you? (Uh, yeah, I have heard that explanation.)