Friday, February 12, 2016

Losing Hope

I'm in a funk.  It's beginning to dawn on me that the very thing I've committed my life to--the object of my study--doesn't matter these days.

Now, before you correct my misplaced devotion (after all, we're supposed to be committed to Christ and his kingdom), I am fully aware that there is a difference between the Word of God and the word of God.  And, yes, I've committed my entire life to the former, the One who captured my heart, the Man who lived better than any person has ever lived, the very Son of God who reveals perfectly our heavenly Father, the hope of our salvation, the once-and-for-all sacrifice for our sins, the embodiment of our resurrection.  But, as the preacher in the book of Hebrews said so eloquently, Jesus is the Last Word of God found first and foremost in the very word of God--the Scriptures.  He warns his listeners over and over again:  We'd better listen to the word to hear the Word, because, if we don't, there's going to be big trouble.

Within the cacaphony of trivia that dominates our everyday attention, you'd think a more substantive, powerful, shake-your-soul-to-your-feet, gravitas-kind of word would feel like a drink of cold water in the middle of the desert.  (Is it just me, or are things getting worse?  My daily morning habit is to read a few .coms of news, check out a blog or two--even a so-called "Christian" blog that tells me the state of our faith "Today."  A few years ago, that would take about 30 minutes to an hour.  These days, I don't find much to read.  For example, this morning I clicked on nothing!  Nothing!  Nothing!  Perhaps I'm becoming that old curmudgeon that I used to despise in my youth.  But, I wonder to myself, "Does anyone read this nonsense?  Really?  Is this what should occupy our minds today?")  I read for a living.  I speak for a living.  I write for a living.  But, the very centerpiece of that devotion, the thing I treasure, what should occupy our attention in profound ways, is so marginalized today that I can't even get my students to pay attention to it in class.  The Bible doesn't matter.  And, the great irony is, they're taking a biblical studies class.  They don't read it before class.  They don't even have it open while I lecture on it.  They don't wrestle with what it says.  Rather, the majority of them sit and listen and take a few notes, hoping to pass the class.  Of course, I have a few students who care.  But that number is shrinking every year.

Sharing my disappointment recently, one of my colleagues assessed the situation like this:  these students of ours love the Bible.  They just don't care what's in it.

Same thing happens in church.  I'll invite my listeners to take their bibles and turn to . . . .  But there's no movement, little effort.  A few open the Scriptures (hard or e-copies) and try to follow along.  But, for the most part, the Bible is one of the most ignored things on Sunday mornings.  Trying to keep them engaged, I'll ask, "And what did Jesus say here?" or "And what was Paul's response in verse 24?"  Nothing.  Silence.  A few might fumble around trying to find the answer, as if surprised by the pop quiz.  But most stare back at me with that, "Are you finished yet?" look I've come to recognize so well:  in the classroom as well as in the church.

I'm afraid I'm becoming so discouraged that I might throw a fit in righteous indignation.  But that's such an ugly scene.  Doesn't do any good.  Besides, I don't want to be that guy.  I even prayed that this morning, "Lord.  Please help.  I don't want to be that guy."

But, I'm afraid I am becoming that guy, the old prof who reminisces about the good, old days--when people not only loved the Bible but also craved to know what's in it.

Honestly, I'm afraid the Scriptures don't matter anymore, and I wonder what the preacher of Hebrews would say.


Danny Dyer said...

Dr Reeves, you were always one of the best profs I ever had through the course of my higher-education. (And I assume my face and B- average come to mind when you reminisce about the good ole days ��.) If you're having this much trouble captivating the attention of your students then I assume all the other professors are as well. But then again, the Word had the same problem didn't he? Fertile soil has always been scarce I guess. Perhaps that is why he told so many stories/parables, because they're generally more effective than lectures or sermons.

Keep sewing the seed anyway, Dr Reeves. In spite of what you immediately see/hear, I feel confident that your labors are not in vain.

- Danny Dyer

Rodney Reeves said...


I wish I were as creative as he. I would love to be able to create literary art as provocative and as beautiful as he did. But alas, one can only give what one has been given.

Anthony said...

"Anything but read the Bible and pray." As I taught my church to read and pray during the month of January, my personal experience was a spiritual battle. It felt like the enemy employed every tactic to divert me off course. "Anthony, are you really going to wake up early and spend an entire hour reading and praying? Don't you know there are people dying and going to hell?" "Anthony, don't you need to move past teaching your church to read and pray and get them 'on mission'?" It felt like the enemy would have me and the church do anything but read the bible and pray, even good intentions. It makes sense, the last thing Satan wants is a bunch of Bible-reading disciples. Unfortunately, it seems that the last thing disciples want too - to be a Bible-reading disciple. And, in my situation (replanting a church), the powers that be want to measure everything besides who is reading their Bible now that wasn't 3 months ago. Nor do I find much encouragement when I turn to Facebook or Twitter and every post about "How to plant a church" has nothing to say about disciples learning to read the Bible. There are just too many quick start up plans, plug and play strategies, and overnight success stories to mess with teaching people to read the Bible. I wonder if we even believe it will "work."

And don't forget, sometimes those students who just sit there and don't say anything are hearing it and getting it. They might even be at a crisis point - do I really want to devote my life to this book or not? Some, after taking one of your classes, leave saying, "Yep, there's nothing else I want to do with my life than to read, study and teach this book."


Jordan Green said...

Dr. Reeves,

As a seminary student your lament is powerful to me this morning.

Reflecting on (and perhaps reading my own interests into!) your colleague's judgement, "these students of ours love the Bible. They just don't care what's in it," I am reminded of the centuries old "ditch" between history and faith. Though prevalent in Biblical studies over the past couple centuries, I tend to think this is the lingering question behind the hesitancy to know and care for the words of the text. While there is likely no single issue to which a situation can be reduced, this particular question is something I have been interested with for a couple semesters (so perhaps it's more my concern than it is pertinent to your post). What does the text actually provide to my existential life? Is it just history or myth that doesn't really give me anything? These unspoken questions seem to devalue the text in our modern culture, and are rarely addressed. Looking back on my life in the Church, preaching took on Gabler's program of extracting the "universal truth" of scripture and applying that to life. In this way scripture became less important than the "universal truth" the pastor saw and expounded. Again indirectly devaluing the content of scripture.

I will say that I always appreciated your teaching of Scripture, and your emphasis on the importance of the content of Scripture.

As I read your lament today I am challenged do as the psalmist and cultivate a practice of meditating on the law (and words) of the Lord.

Wade Berry said...

Dr. Reeves, I share your pain. I remember watching a lecture by Dallas Willard in which he tried to explain this phenomenon. He argued that religion has been relegated to the realm of “faith” by our society. As several apologists have observed, “faith” is popularly understood as a belief that is held in the absence of—or even in contradiction to—any kind of verifiable knowledge. And, since “faith” is devoid of knowledge, it is also devoid of authority.

Now, Willard offered this assessment of our current situation in order to explain why ministers (even highly-trained ones like you and I) are so often ignored or even maligned these days. But his explanation also illuminates the plight of Christian Scripture. Too often, people look anywhere and everywhere for the answers to their questions except the Bible. Even Christian people will pursue the advice of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, economists, etc. without even giving a thought to the Bible.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m a man of science, and I believe in the value of these human intellectual endeavors. I also recognize that the Bible is not a book of “101 Answer’s to Wade’s Most Pressing Questions.” It tells the grand story of God’s redemptive work in the world, and, as such, it confronts us with its own battery of penetrating questions. Nevertheless, it seems to me that we are mired in a form of epistemological idolatry. Rather than seeing our intellectual pursuits as methods of cooperation with the divine program of bringing order to creation, we see them as the only reliable means of knowing anything about anything. (Does this explanation make any sense at all? Does it resemble your own experience of our culture?)

And all this high-felutin’ scholar-talk has real-world consequences—and they aren’t good. Every day, I see people whose lives are a complete wreck and communities that are deluged in darkness. And it feels like all my efforts to point people to the grand narrative of Scripture amount to nothing more than shouting into a hurricane.

I wish I had a tsunami of good news that would sweep all of your discouragement out to sea. Unfortunately, all I have is this. No, Dr. Reeves, you are not a curmudgeon—not unless I am one, too (and I’m a lot younger than you). And, there are pockets of passion for Christian Scripture. It may not be widespread, but there are places where people young and old are dedicating themselves to the Bible and to the story that it tells. I have seen these oases of faithfulness, and they fill my heart with hope for the future. No, I am afraid the Bible will not exercise the broad influence that it once did—at least not in this epoch of North American history. But there will be people who hear its sweet melody, heed its call, and receive life.