Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Reverence, fundamentalism, and modern evangelicalism

Recently I heard on the radio that an adult coloring Bible has been published by Zondervan.

The Babylon Bee has been satirizing the proliferation of "Bibles" for a while (e.g., here, here, and here), but really, satire almost seems to be dead on this subject.

In real life there is the so-called Brick Bible, which is a Bible story book (why does a Bible story book have to be called a Bible, since they aren't the same thing?) done in the style of Lego pictures. They even crucify a Lego Jesus on a Lego cross.

And then there's this one: NIV Wild About Horses Bible. It intersperses photos of horses, inscribed with "short inspirational thoughts and scripture verses on themes of love, peace, friendship, beauty, strength and faith [that] accompany the photos," amongst the pages of Holy Writ.

I was posting about the coloring Bible on Facebook and encountered the argument that "as long as it gets more people to read the Bible, what's the problem?" Well, I beg to question whether, in fact, a coloring book combined with the text of the Bible is actually going to get more people to read the Bible.

In thinking about all the problems with treating the text of the Bible (or even dumbed-down Bible stories labeled as "a Bible") as an opportunity for marketers to make lots of money by selling people irreverent, self-expressionistic kitsch, I got to thinking about this whole notion of reverence.

At first I was tempted to think that the "what does it matter" evangelical tin ear to all matters of tackiness and reverence is a result of an absence of sacramentalism. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that isn't quite right, sociologically.

The old fundamentalists would have had conniptions over a coloring Bible. They carried their Bibles, the actual physical books, with reverence. They even questioned whether you should place your Bible on the floor. And don't get me started imagining what they would have probably said about a fake Lego "Bible" in which Lego Jesus gets crucified on a Lego cross.

Yet they weren't, at least officially, sacramentalists. They may have treated the physical bodies of their Bibles in a quasi-sacramental way, but the only theory involved in general was the theory of being reverent and respectful toward sacred matters, including the Word of God. This meant that there were proprieties that needed to be followed. The Veggie Tales makers showed some of this idea of propriety when they refused to do New Testament stories in which Jesus appeared as a vegetable (!).

Part of the problem with a "coloring Bible," which is in turn a lot less bad than a Lego Bible, is the idea that the things of the Lord exist principally for our benefit. A Bible that you color in encourages the idea that the Bible exists for your entertainment and enjoyment rather than your existing for God's glory. Another obvious problem is history. The Bible is a large, messy, often unpleasant set of books in a variety of historical settings. It's not there to be pretty or soothing.

It would be one thing to have a coloring book, a thin, cheap, paperback thing that made no claim to be a Bible, that had some passages from the Psalms with pictures of flowers to color. Even that would be somewhat kitschy. We pick out the parts that we like, combine them with pretty pictures, and give them to you to soothe your mind and meditate on. But it is much worse to print an entire Bible this way. At least a coloring book using Bible passages is openly, frankly, using biblical passages for some other purpose. The purchaser of a mere coloring book is under no illusion that he's getting the whole Scripture. An entire Bible, printed, is supposed to have an existence in itself, aside from any particular use to which we might want to put it. In this way the whole Bible, or even a printed New Testament, testifies to the fact that man is not the measure of all things. This is an uncompromisingly real set of historical books that exists apart from ourselves and that we cannot make in our own image. We may turn to particular passages in our time of need. That isn't wrong. But if we really want to know the Scriptures, we must be prepared to be judged by the Scriptures. A coloring Bible communicates something quite different.

The old fundamentalists understood that sort of thing instinctively. But perhaps instinct is not enough in the fight against cultural slide. As the culture has coarsened and become aesthetically tone-deaf, as reverence has waned in general, virtually all of the churches that were once quiet, even somewhat bare, testaments to quiet, pious, Protestant prayer have succumbed to the culture of kitsch. Rightly desiring to bring souls to Christ, they have hired more and more number-focused pastors who subscribe to the "what does it matter, so long as..." school of thought. We wouldn't want our churches to be boring, bare, and frumpy, would we? And we wouldn't want to be legalistic and judgemental, would we? And mere aesthetics are just subjective, aren't they?

God doesn't think so. God ordered that even the tabernacle was to be made beautiful. The God who struck a man dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant hardly seems like a God who doesn't care about ceremony. It was our Lord Jesus himself who drove the money-changers from the Temple for showing disrespect for the physical House of God and using it only as a means of profit. Can irreverence send souls to hell? I venture to fear that it can.

Irreverence where there should be reverence takes us away from the awe and majesty of the great God who, miracle of miracles, loves us, and from the glorious, painful seriousness of the Christian faith, rooted in uncompromising historical fact, recorded and revealed in ancient and somewhat alien books. I suggest that we try to teach Christians to confront and meditate on all of that rather than softening and obscuring it with coloring Bible Christianity.

In closing, I leave you with a few words from the inimitable Alistair Begg, on the related subject of worship and feelings:

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