This week in my Sunday school class, we began a study of Peter Enns’ book The Bible Tells Me So: Why defending scripture has made us unable to read it. I was proud of myself because I actually made it to class (more or less) on time (and there are witnesses who can attest to this, I promise!). Some of my WHBC friends know that I’m usually the one who pops into Sunday school about twenty minutes before class ends.
I could blame this on my preschoolers (and some mornings, believe me, they deserve it!), but if I am perfectly honest, I have to admit that for years, I’ve been a bit ambivalent toward Sunday school classes. In fact, for a few years of my life, I was ambivalent about church itself and rarely went except for the weekends when I happened to be visiting my parents.
I never turned away from my faith, and I never strayed (too far) from the moral code that came from my church upbringing. So why did I take a three or four year vacation from having a church home and spiritual community?
Well, there are several reasons, but here is one of the biggest: I felt like I had no more to learn, and I was bored. By the time I got my undergrad degree, I had pretty much earned my “church diploma” as well. So why go back?
I know what you’re thinking. Of course I had more to learn. No one knows it all at the ripe old age of twenty-two.
Which leads to the next question: Why did I feel that way? And the answer: Because the churches of my youth weren’t actually teaching very much, particularly when one has a whole lifetime to spend learning it.
I figured out this connection between boredom and my disengagement with church several years ago, but our discussion of the beginning of Peter Enns’ book gave me some clearer ideas about the root of the problem. Enns writes that Christian conservatism requires a “well-behaved Bible” in order to function. The Bible is too often treated as a clear-cut “heavenly instruction manual,” and preachers and teachers jump through all sorts of hoops trying to make an ancient and complex group of texts live up to unrealistic expectations that include everything from historical facticity to scientific accuracy.
The parts of the Bible that are too messy or challenging–the ones that Enns says “don’t behave”–are either kept out of sight or are treated awkwardly. On the other hand, the parts that support the particular focus and ideology of conservative evangelicalism are trotted out and led around like docile prize ponies in a never-ending circle. Or at least that’s what it has sometimes seemed like to me.
As Enns notes, the task of making the Bible “behave” takes a lot of energy and creates a lot of stress, and as I look back on my early Christian education, I can see that it was shaped at least in part by avoidance (of biblical difficulties and of alternate interpretations) and by ignorance (of well-meaning teachers who were also hampered by a limited theological and Biblical education).
As I left my teenage years behind, I began to grow weary of the repetition. Every Sunday school quarterly seemed to have to same lessons on the same stories. All the object lessons had the same obvious and familiar morals. And no matter what text the pastor chose for the sermon, it invariably came down to the exact same point: the status of my personal salvation.
Did I need to walk the aisle and accept Jesus as my Savior? Nope. Did that when I was six. No hellfire and brimstone for this kid.
Did I need to rededicate my life to God? Maybe. But I’d done it a few times already, and besides, as a southern Baptist, the phrase “Once saved, always saved” was pretty much branded on my backside.
Did I need to be freed from the evils of smoking, drinking, drugs, or promiscuous sex? Nah. I had managed to grow up into a relatively decent and self-controlled person without any serious detours down the road to perdition.
According to the lessons of my youth, I already knew what I was supposed to believe, do, and not do. And frankly, when I went to church, I was bored as hell.
I kept growing as a person and a scholar, but for the most part, my spiritual maturation came to a halt because I had mastered understanding and believing in a narrow view of the Bible and Christian life.
The meaning of the Bible came down to being almost exclusively personal: it was about my salvation in the afterlife and my personal moral choices here on earth. (Of course, I was also supposed to worry about everyone else’s eternal salvation and their personal moral choices, but that was secondary, and besides, I had paid my dues by spending three summers as a student missionary.)
I appreciate the lessons that I learned as a young Christian and the values that I still retain from that part of my education. However, ten years, two churches, and several wonderful spiritual mentors later, I know that what I got as a child and young adult was only a small portion of a much larger picture.
I have come to know (or at least believe) that Christianity is about much more than guaranteeing the future of my eternal soul, and that the apex of my life as a Christian was not the day circa 1984 when I walked down the church aisle to “ask Jesus into my heart.” That was only the first, and perhaps the easiest, of all the questions I needed to learn to ask.
The central message of Jesus, and the Bible as a whole, is not a personal invitation to escape eternal punishment that we need to accept and then share with others. The real invitation is to become a citizen of the kingdom of God here and now, and to actively participate in creating that kingdom on earth by giving love, making peace, and promoting justice.
It’s not about saving ourselves; it’s about sacrificing ourselves in the pursuit of God’s passion for justice and peace. It’s about radical transformation, both of ourselves and the world. It’s about wrestling with a complex, unruly Bible that offers us glimpses of God’s dream for the world and how we can bring it about. That’s the work of a lifetime, and now I know that I’m a lifetime student.
Needless to say, I’m not bored anymore. And I’m looking forward to Sunday school next week.
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