November 26, 2020

Why Evangelicalism Drives Us Crazy, and Why We Need Each Other

In eight years, I’ve seldom launched a post off of a comment. No disrespect to commenters. They are fine folk, for the most part. But I almost never comment on another blog myself. The sort of person who chases down some phrase like “contemplative prayer” and then goes to battle in the comment threads of all guilty blogs seems to me like someone with issues. I’m sure the parties involved see it as a form of evangelizing the apostate community, so I’m glad to occasionally provide a brief but fleeting target.

The previous post has been a truly great discussion- one of the best ever- on spiritual formation and where evangelicals in certain corners of the wilderness might find some deepening resources for liturgical prayer, reading scripture, spiritual direction, a more ordered, practical devotional life and so on.

With such a juicy target, how could we escape the inevitable.

Just in case you forgot why evangelicalism was driving you crazy, enter “Greg,” today’s commenter of interest and representative of the “Why can’t you people see that Bible in front of you?” committee.

First comment:

Why not read the bible and do what it says? Or is that just not sexy enough?

To parphrase Vince Lombardi “This is a Bible”

With that kind of instant appreciation of the topic, I can’t believe there’s not a DVD curriculum.

Oh there’s more. Don’t worry.

My point (and Lombardi’s) was that when something is not working, you go back to the basics. I think one of the big problems with spiritual formation is that people are used to fast food. They just want a Spiritual Happy Meal, and they want it NOW! This is why there is a continuous stream of novelty programs and a quick fix, three easy steps approach to Spirituality in the Evangelical Church. Besides the necessity of the Spirit’s illumination, It takes hard work to study the bible, reflect on it in prayer and live it out in community. People are just plain too lazy do it. They want a quicky lube program they can just show up for, completely unprepared, and come away from with an instant buzz.

On the other side of the pendulum swing, are the Spiritual elitists with their Pseudo-Gnostic secrets that only they can show you. The fact that many of the specific, answers, that are being pedaled are also steeped in Mysticism, Asceticism and the Occult is another question altogether. You asked “Where do you go?” The answer is the Bible! Read out, Prayed out, and Lived out in Community, in Spirit and in Truth.

Now I want to say that, in answer to the proper question, Greg is saying some passably good things (in a twenty-something fresh from a conference kind of way.) I’ve probably said a few of them myself and will again.

In this case, however, the post was doing a bit of an open-thread huddle (staying with the football theme) and asking one another what’s been helpful on our journey. Where have you found some resources? Where are other evangelicals who have moved beyond the empty cupboard of spiritual direction in their own tradition and found a loaf of bread left by another pilgrim.

The point is to be constructive. To help the other guy. To share your lunch. To point the way and offer a cup of cold water. To understand, listen and see what you’d picked up along the way that could help others. The kind of thing the internet can be very good at.

So Greg comes along to remind many of us why it is that evangelicalism is driving us crazy and making other communions and traditions- including ones digging up bones and postulating flying houses- as absolute oases of sanity.

The problem: We’re a bunch of sorry, pathetic, lazy Christians who won’t (here it comes…….here it comes…..) READ THE BIBLE. (Man. I’ve never heard that one before.)

You have to hang your head, y’know?

Where do we go? Just get alone with your Bible and “pray it out/read it out.” I have no idea what that particular piece of evangelical-speak means, but it’s right up the alley of classics like “pursue the heart of God,” “surrender all,” “listen till God speaks” and “pray through.” Great bumper stickers. Great t-shirts.

And that’s why, for goodness sake, so many of us are asking these questions. Evangelicalism keeps telling us to go back and read our Bible. READ YOUR BIBLE. READ YOUR BIBLE!!!! GEt OFF YOUR LAZY SPIRITUAL BEHIND AND READ YOUR BIBLE!!! I KNOW IT’S HARD!!! JUST DO IT!!!

The stunning, really stunning thing here is this: We’re all talking to one another about HOW we can listen better to the Bible. We aren’t trying to avoid it when we talk about “spiritual formation.” We aren’t trying to get a quick fix or a short cut. The people I know who are serious about spiritual formation invest significant amounts of time, energy, mind and emotion in hearing far more scripture than you hear in the average evangelical church these days.

And you want an even bigger irony? A guy like Greg is probably very close to the rest of us in what he wants and how he’s trying to find it. He may have some suspicions that some of the words and ideas the rest of us mention are less than Biblically on target, but at the end of the day we’re all trying to learn how to read scripture, hear God in it, pray without ceasing and live in the power and presence of the Spirit. We want communities, mentors and fellow pilgrims to help us along that road.

But instead, evangelicalism greets us with this kind of rhetoric, and you simply can’t help but look longingly outside of evangelicalism where you’d be undisturbed in your search for more serious spiritual formation and perhaps even significantly encouraged.

The Christian with a hunger to become more Jesus shaped and spiritually mature will always find evangelicalism full of voices that insist its all very simple: read the Bible, memorize the verses, listen to lots of sermons and pray a lot- extemporaneously, of course.

I know I’m not alone in saying it can sometimes be the most exasperating of experiences.

It’s the sound of another appeal to walk the aisle; the sound of another Biblical discernment ministry saying all the people we’re reading are deceivers and purveyors of a false Gospel; the sound of the spiritual drill instructors telling us we’re lazy and, of course, avoiding letting the Bible solve the problem.

It’s why we need each other. That’s for sure.

So no hard feelings, Greg. You’re just doing to us what has been done dozens- hundreds?- of times before.

Comments

  1. Yes, I do belong to a local church, yes I do believe preaching and teaching are spiritual gifts. The Bible says how will they know without a preacher/teacher?

    I’m not saying don’t go to church,nor am I making studying the Bible a legalistic ritual, or superstition(if your day went bad you didn’t read your Bible.) I am saying not to always rely on others or preaching for spiritual growth. Each of us has the Holy Spirit, each of us has availability to study tools such as a commentary, the original language, history of the first century church. We must get to the point where we don’t believe just because someone told us, they could be in error. We also shouldn’t rely on others to get us from milk to meat. We should be doing that on our own. And I do believe the Reformation fathers would agree with me.But even if they don’t. That’s not the basis of my faith. Christ alone is. I learn of Him by reading His word. Not always relying on others to feed me. That’s all I’m saying, and yes I believe it is that simple, while also being difficult, and sometimes taking years to come to a conclusion on questions one has, or difficult passages.

  2. Bob Sacamento says

    Christopher Lake,

    I appreciate your comment and I want to be fair, even to someone who ticked me off as much as Friel did.

    So, to clarify: My comment was admittedly tangential to the topic at hand. Friel is not “Bible only” in the sense that a few of the commenters here seem to be. (Notice, I did not name names here, folks! So keep your flames directed at Micahel! 🙂 )

    Now, my comment was tangential, but still related, in that Friel did make one of these comments about the Bible that come out of evangelical circles alot and, like the “Bible only” mantras, really make me crazy: He said in no uncertain terms that if you’re going through a dry spell, it’s probably because you Aren’t. Reading. Your. Bible. Enough. Now, this was of course, in the context of a “point … about a lack of daily Bible reading being dangerous for a Christian’s spiritual health” as you put it. (A general point that I agree with, BTW.) But he still said what he said and there Was. No. Mistaking. his intentions. He meant it. And he is wrong.

    And by the way, you sound like an OK guy. Friel is the one I had the beef with. Hope my firmness in our discussion doesn’t sound like anger directed toward you. Blog comments are such a wonderfully screwed up communcation mechanism sometimes.

  3. Christopher Lake says

    Debbie,

    I completely agree with you that we shouldn’t mindlessly *rely* on other people, including preachers, for our spiritual understanding and growth. Such a mindless reliance produces people who “rely” on terrible TV preachers who are often in error!

    We should definitely be Bereans– Christians who test *all teaching* by the Word to see if it is true. I was just concerned, because some of your comments seemed to be downplaying the role of the local church, and the thinking of Christians of the past, in understanding Scripture and in growing spiritually in other ways. I’m happy to see that I was wrong about what you meant! 🙂

    Christ is also the basis of my faith, not the Reformers. It’s because He is the basis of my faith, though, that I love to read the Reformers!

  4. Christopher Lake says

    Bob,

    I hear you, and I do agree that Todd should not have spoken so broadly and without clarification. There are many reasons for spiritually dry times, and lack of Bible reading is only one of them.

    On another note though, I do think that lack of Bible reading, and/or mechanical, dutiful Bible reading without passion and prayer, are likely at the root of so many American evangelicals’ obsessions with fads and silliness. If more people read their Bibles carefully *and* passionately, with prayer, there might be much less evangelical doctrinal confusion and also less general malaise. On the other hand, there might be also be much more “trouble” in local churches, because Christians would be waking up and questioning more of what they hear and see on Sundays! That would be a good trouble to have though! 🙂

  5. Christopher Lake says

    Wow, now it looks as if my last two comments (replies to Debbie and Bob’s most recent comments) have disappeared. Before retyping, I’ll wait to see if they show up…

  6. Christopher Lake says

    … and now, it seems that they are back! Strange…

  7. If reading the Bible (or anything else) is so critical to our spiritual development, it seems strange that the Lord took such a long time to teach His people how to read. It is only in the last 200 years or so that most Christians became literate.

    Even now, reading the Bible, the BCP, and so on is not an option for millions of Christian people. What are they supposed to do?

  8. Bob Sacamento says

    Christopher,

    I agree with everything you said (ref. your comment on 03 Sep 2008 at 5:25 pm). It’s refreshing when these back-and-forths can end on a good note!

  9. PatrickW,

    I think that, if we look at the history of the Church, there has always been a tradition of oral reading of scripture and of preaching, as well as catechesis, more in-depth teaching. These were/are the sources for the illiterate to grapple with Scripture. Many of them, such as St. Antony of the Desert, having heard the Scriptures read aloud, meditated on the words that they had heard. Illiterate Egyptian monks would memorise the entire book of Psalms and other important passages of Scripture.

    Perhaps this is also a major reason for the development of the spiritual father/director/mentor. Many people simply couldn’t read their Bibles, so guidance from someone who is more spiritually mature is almost a necessity.

    Nonetheless, you raise a good point. Ultimately, it is Christ and Christ alone, indwelling us by the power of the Holy Spirit, Who can make us whole and spiritually mature. He is the only resource we need. That said, to quote a Desert Father, “prayer is hard work”; that goes for the whole spiritual life.

    As far as we literate folk are concerned, there seems to be an emphasis within the Bible and within the tradition that we ought to be reading the Bible. John Cassian, one of the founding fathers of Western monasticism, only recommends the reading of the Scriptures, although he himself is clearly well-read and does not discourage reading of other spiritual writers (one does not write books to discourage the reading of books). It seems that the Fathers, the mediaeval writers, the Reformers, the Counter-Reformers, right up until now, all expect that literate Christians will use the Bible in spiritual formation.

    And illiterate Christians will use it in their own way as well, meditating on it, memorising it, and applying it to their lives.

  10. Regarding those who want to hear how people know we’re accurately hearing the Spirit on how to interpret the bible:

    (1) Do your homework. While the Spirit can point out insights to people who have only just flipped their bibles open because they need a teaching in a hurry, He prefers to give insight to those people who take His word seriously. Those folks who actually want to understand a verse have to put in the necessary time looking at the text, analyzing the words, looking at the context, learning the history behind the verse, looking at the overall theology of the book or letter, and understanding all this in the light of God’s love and encouragement and self-revelation thru Jesus. Only after all these things are done will the Spirit reward the patient, diligent seeker with insight.

    (2) The Spirit does not quote Himself out of context. I have found, to my surprise, that a lot of verses where it appears Paul or Matthew or the other writers of scripture were just yanking verses from the OT willy-nilly to support their views, have a profound and deeper meaning when you look at the whole passage from where the NT writers pulled it. This wasn’t the all-too-common Talmudic practice of anything-goes context-free quotations. I was actually taught so in college, but the more I analyze these passages, the more I realize how wrong it is… and the more I realize the Spirit has the intent, with these quotes, to get the readers and listeners to read the OT passages and see what He was trying to convey there.

    Anyway, the same principle applies to present-day “Spirit-inspired” interpretations. If it’s out of context, it’s not from the Spirit.

    (3) The insight connects the situation of the reader to the bible. And again, not out of context. It is a real-life application that doesn’t require verbal or contextual gymnastics. It is so obvious and life-impacting that the reader goes, “Holy frijoles, how could I miss this?”

    While the insight is profound to the reader, others might not necessarily react with the same degree of surprised recognition. They will, at least, recognize the understanding is valid. But the Spirit tends to customize revelation to the hearer, so while people will recognize the truth of the interpretation, it just won’t hit ’em like a punch to the stomach. If that’s what you’re seeing—a lack of awe on your part—it’s ’cause the message was generically for you, but not specifically for you. But that’s another issue altogether.

    (4) The insight, like prophecy and all other works of the Spirit, promotes strengthening, encouragement, and comfort in the Church. It only creates division among those who show no fruit of the Spirit, who resist Him in one way or another. Among Christians it edifies, empowers, demonstrates the love of God, glorifies Jesus, and brings peace.

    That’s just off the top of my head. There’s a lot more detail, but this isn’t my blog and I have no business dumping all of that here.

  11. Kristine D'Ambrosio says

    I find it sad that there is so much division – we are supposed to be the body of Christ- there are no sections in heaven for denominations- the Holy Spirit is the Head of the church and it is through the indwelling that we receive knowledge and revelation. Knowledge alone isn’t enough – you need holy Spirit revelation-that comes from asking for it. knowing that water will save you if you are dehydrated isn’t enough – you have to drink it. everyone needs to spend time with God and prayer. Salvation is a gift of grace- walking in love and having peace comes from how much effort we each put into our relationship with God.