Friday, August 31, 2012

The Absolute, Worse Thing That Ever Happened to the Bible

Chapters and verses.

Not simply because chapter divisions break up a good story--none of the gospel writers wrote their work with embedded chapters.  Each gospel was meant to be read (and heard!) as one, long story. 

Neither because chapters and verses lead to misguided interpretations of Paul's letters.  Romans is one, long argument.  You can't take a verse or two from Romans, examine it, then stick it back in.  Indeed, Paul builds argument upon argument in Romans like Jenga blocks.  Pull the middle block out and the whole thing falls down.  The only way you'll know what Romans 10:9-10 means is to read Romans 1:1-10:8 and 10:11-16:27.

Yes, context is crucial.  Yes, chapters and verses imply it's not.  But, that's not the most horrible thing about these man-made, artifical divisions.

Chapters and verses spawn "Bible References."  And, why do we have Bible References?  Well, they're often used to prove our answers to certain questions are "biblical."  Now, they can serve as literary pointers to certain parts of Paul's argument or Luke's story.  That can be helpful.  But, that's not how we use them (either as writer or reader).  Readers rarely "look up" the reference (my wife points this out all the time, either in her reading or when listening to Sunday School lessons).  Because, if we looked up the reference, we might be led to say, "Hey.  That's not what that means." Then, we'd all have to get our Bibles out, read the verse in context, which would take a lot of time that we don't have, and then we'd be left with the unsettling reality that most Bible References don't support the nice, clean, simple answers we need.  Life is more complicated than that:  relationships, work, money, jobs, help, society, culture--these things are very complex.  So, most of us want at least one thing in our life that's not complicated:  our faith.  And, here's the really dangerous part, that's what most writers/speakers know.  We don't want a faith that's hard to think about.

Enter Bible References.  Confused about your relationships?  Read this verse.  Want to have a successful job?  Read this verse.  Want to feel better about your life, your world?  Read this verse.  Want to know why these people are wrong and we're right?  Read this verse.  Want to know what to believe about the most important decisions in your life?  Read this verse.

"Who has time to read the whole thing?  We should be grateful we have experts to point us to the important parts.  Besides, who wants to read the parts that don't answer our questions?"

7 comments:

Darryl said...

You and your superlatives.

jr. forasteros said...

Nicely done.

Here's a particularly appropriate post:
http://robertcargill.com/2012/09/01/the-disingenuous-nature-of-the-christian-right-summed-up-on-a-texas-billboard/

Rev. Spike said...

The "time" factor certainly applies. Over the years, I have become more and more reliant on technology in sermon preparation, which has caused me to get a bit rusty on recalling where a text lies in its context. If we want our congregations to take the time to study, we'd better practice before we preach!

thenweareheirs said...

I certainly agree that this can be detrimental. However, I would have to say, as you seem to briefly point out, that most of the tragedy of this system is not in existence but in it's usage. On their own, chapters and verses although they may tend to break up a text unnecessarily, causing us to lose some of the bigger picture of each particular text, are meant as a study aide. For the most part it is our own laziness that causes us to misuse these tools.
Furthermore, they can add some authority to your message..It carries much more weight to say "2 Timothy 2:2 says...", rather than the vague "It says in the Bible....". As many of us I'm sure have been told it says something in the Bible (an adage or proverb for instance) that simply is not there. Also, there are few instances where the argument can be made that perhaps, some sort of break should be there, Psalms comes to mind, it makes sense that Psalms probably should not be read the same way as Romans, for example. All that being said I certainly agree with your premise in general, just not sure it is the worst thing to happen. I would have to say that the restriction of scriptures to clergy, or possibly even the gross mistranslation of doulos as servant rather than slave that changes the meaning of most of the NT is far worse. Either way it definitely gives us something to pause and think about how we treat scripture, and how that affects how we respond to it. (PS, please forgive poor grammer and punctuation, I just got off work and my mind is mush)

Paul Juby said...

While I see your point, I also think studying the Bible is an important aspect that many people don't pay attention to. They want the answer, nice and simple and gift-wrapped. Studying the Bible may help people see something they didn't see before. After all, what could be better than practicing your faith outside of church? Perhaps it should be revised to "Chapters and Verses out of Context."

Rodney Reeves said...

Paul Juby,

I'm not trying to be difficult; I really don't see how chapters and verses help us study the Bible. Or, perhaps, I should say they don't help me. As I'm reading one of Paul's letters, I don't think, "Oh. That's chapter 5 verse 6; now I know what it means."

Brad Aslin said...

Amen.