Over the past several years, as I’ve taught the Bible in various settings, I’ve heard something odd from evangelical people. And I’ve heard it often enough that it seems fair to call it a pattern. When I first began to hear it, I was baffled. I couldn’t imagine the sort of mindset that would give rise to the comment.
I began to hear it often enough from undergraduate students that I developed some responses that I’d trot out, using the occasion as a teaching moment.
Over the past few months, though, I’ve heard it more regularly, and I’ve tried to figure out what’s behind it. I’m not sure I’ve completely wrapped my head around it just yet, but I’m going to take a few posts to think out loud about it.
I think that the comment I’ve been hearing indicates something that’s a bit warped about how evangelicals regard the Bible.
Now, before I get into this discussion, there’s a bit of autobiography that may explain why this comment strikes me as very strange.
I was raised in a Bible family. We read passages of Scripture each morning. A few evenings a week my Mom made popcorn and my sisters and I would watch Moody filmstrips (filmstrips!) of Bible stories. We all participated in several Bible memorization programs throughout our childhoods. At family gatherings, there were lively discussions of difficult passages of Scripture and differences between Christian traditions. I pretty much grew up in the linguistic world of the King James Bible.
Soon after arriving at college, I owned the faith personally and began to devour the Bible. I poured over it, read it voraciously, marking up passages, discussing it with friends and roommates, and grabbing for any resources that would help me understand it. I was amazed that while I was so familiar with the Bible, there was still so much that was new.
I took a Bible backgrounds class my senior year and realized that while I might know a passage of Scripture really well, grasping its ancient cultural setting brought completely new levels of understanding. I was overwhelmed with how much more there was to discover.
I went off to seminary, then, with great eagerness to continue exploring and a love for learning. When I left seminary and entered my doctoral studies, I was blown away to discover new ideological worlds that made more parts of the Bible make greater sense.
This basic posture toward the Bible of excitement about continual discovery has never left me. And this is probably why the comment I’ve heard regularly over the last several years has caught my attention and left me baffled.
When I began teaching evangelical undergraduates, it wasn’t long before I heard a student say, “I’ve never heard this before.” My first response was, “I know, and there’s so much more to discover!”
But then I heard another variation: “I’ve never heard this before. What you’re saying isn’t biblical.”
I asked for clarification. The student responded by saying, “well, I think there’s a verse somewhere that says something like . . . ,” proceeding to blend together three different passages with the chorus of a praise song.
I figured this sort of thing was just the arrogance of youth, but it began to happen regularly. Just about three weeks into every semester, a student would raise his or her hand and say, “I’ve never heard this stuff before.”
I began to respond by saying, “you’re welcome! You or your parents are paying me thousands of dollars to tell you things that you don’t know. This is what we call ‘education’ and it sounds like I’m doing my job.”
It began to dawn on me, however, that there was something about evangelical culture that was making these students assume that if something was unfamiliar, it was unbiblical.
In the last few years, though, I’ve heard this comment from other evangelicals in other settings. It seldom comes from a posture of challenge, but from some sense of betrayal. A person lamented to me recently, “I’ve never heard this before. I’ve been in an evangelical church my whole life and this has never been taught.”
I’m currently teaching a course in a non-evangelical setting. The responses I’ve gotten have been telling. I’ve heard, “this is so interesting,” and “thank you, I’m really enjoying this and learning a lot.”
Only one person has said to me, “I’ve never heard this before.” You guessed it—an evangelical.
What strikes me as odd is that the very thing I have come to associate with studying the Bible—the excitement of discovery—is the very thing that somehow frustrates the evangelicals I’ve been teaching.
Like I said, I think this indicates that there’s something warped about how evangelicals regard the Bible.
Over the next few posts, I’ll try to get at this and offer some suggestions about what it might tell us.