Do you read the Bible for ideology or discipleship?

When I was in seminary, one of the things that impressed me about Augustine was the way that his language was haunted by the words of the psalms, in particular my favorite one, Psalm 42. Books 11-13 of his Confessions break into one of the most beautiful hermeneutical dances I have ever encountered. I wrote a term paper on his stream-of-conscious, allegorical interpretation of Genesis 1 in which the “dry land” which is eternal life has at its center the spring of living water which that deer in Psalm 42 was longing for. Throughout Augustine’s letters and other books, he keeps on returning to Psalm 42’s articulation of the infinite mystery in human nature: “Deep calls unto deep.” When you live inside the Biblical text like Augustine did, your relationship to its language is poetic and intuitive; it becomes how you narrate your journey of discipleship. This is very different than an ideological appropriation of the Bible in which it becomes an encyclopedia of potential proof-texts to be word-searched and scrutinized with a scalpel in order to develop a defensible argument.

I read the Bible both as a disciple and as an ideologue. Ideologically, my agenda is usually refuting some aspect of Calvinism (no offense, just being honest) or really any hegemonic reading that claims to have spoken the final word on the only meaning that a particular verse can possibly have. Conclusions offend me, because I’m a poet and I don’t believe in final words since a final word means that beauty has been exhausted and true beauty is never exhausted. I’m okay with there being boundaries to the canon as long as the space in between the boundaries has infinite depth.

Some people hate depth and ambiguity when it comes to the Bible. What this says to me is that either they just want to be done or they want to have the absolute power of possessing the complete truth. Either way, it sounds like a tragedy. In any case, when I’m reading as an ideologue and not as a disciple, my purpose is usually deconstruction, by which I mean the mischievous revelation that what everyone thought was clear and settled is in fact not as cut and dry as they thought. This may stem from my literary theory classes where I was expected to always find something new to say about a particular Dickens novel or Shakespeare play, and show why all the scholars were wrong before me (one of my professors told me that B’s are for flawless papers; A’s are for papers that change the discourse). In any case, I’m not being deconstructive to be obnoxious. At least what I tell myself is that a zeal for God’s infinite meaning has consumed me and I am trying to protect His irreducible poetry from the furious tyranny of the systematic logicians who try to beat it down into bricks they can shove into their all-encompassing walls of explanation.

So when I’m reading the Bible as an ideologue, I’m word-searching Bible Gateway. I’m looking at the Greek meaning of words. I’m engaging in deductive reasoning because my purpose is to form an argument. As an ideologue, I’m obsessed with debunking the final word of Professor Gagnon (for whom Charles Dickens could not have invented a better name) about the meaning of arsenokotai and malakoi (the words that may or may not refer to homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9). Doesn’t Gagnon have the same kind of sound to it as arsenokotai and malakoi?

As an ideologue, I completely disregard the eight other words in Paul’s list of no-no’s from that verse, which may include something I actually need to be confronted by. How many of you who have cited 1 Corinthians 6:9 or 1 Timothy 1:9 in a conversation about homosexuality can name even one of the words in these lists that doesn’t have anything to do with homosexuality? Can you honestly say that you have ever looked at these lists to find flaws about yourself that need to be changed? This is a textbook example of the Bible not being used “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), but for something else entirely.

When you read the Bible as an ideologue, the importance of 2 Timothy 3:16 is that it says all scripture is God-breathed, which is a proof-text for the argument of inerrancy. When you read the Bible as a disciple, the importance of 2 Timothy 3:16 is what it says the Bible is “useful for” and your concern is whether you are using it appropriately (for teaching, reproving, training in righteousness) or inappropriately (as a science textbook). When you read the Bible as an ideologue, “God-breathed” refers to the authority of the text’s author. When you read the Bible as a disciple, “God-breathed” refers to the living miracle that occurs to the reader who is breathed upon by a text that the Holy Spirit is constantly blowing through.

When I have been breathed upon by scripture, it is often not speaking within its technical “grammatical-historical” meaning. For example, many psalms that I read regularly speak of David’s desire for God to kill or hurt his enemies. The “enemies” that I see in my own life are not neighboring kings who are trying to kill me, but my sin. I do ask God to kill my narcissism and my envy, because the psalm is functioning allegorically for me if I read it as a disciple. God has instilled phrases and images into my mind that create an imaginative landscape, like “mercy not sacrifice,” “swallowed up by life,” “the fear of the Lord,” the tree stump of Isaiah 6, the herd of pigs in Mark 5, the three servants in the parable of the talents, and of course all the metaphorical variations of the cross that Paul uses.

It is in drawing from this pool of phrases and images that I seek to live Biblically. Also from studying closely how Jesus treated people: who he was patient with, who he was rude to, how he used humor, the way he never gave a single straight answer to any question he was asked, which is such a contrast to Christians today who have a clear, simple answer for every question. My quest to gain the heart of Christ is an intuitive journey which involves a kind of knowledge that goes beyond a stack of chapter-verse citations from the Bible. It matters in what sequence I am exposed to different scriptures. It matters that I read “the fear of the Lord is pure” in Psalm 19:9 before I encountered Isaiah 11’s statement that the messiah “will delight in the fear of the Lord.” It matters that I preached on Isaiah 58 about the right and wrong ways to fast the week before I preached on Psalm 42 about thirsting for God, because fasting is entirely related to cultivating an eternal thirst for God. I didn’t plan this; God did!

I often cannot retrace my steps through God’s word or explain how I gained the particular mishmash of sensibilities that I have acquired, but it’s not particularly important to me because the reason to have chapter-verse citations ready at hand is if you need a defensible argument, not if you’re looking to gain virtues that cannot be reasoned into your heart. I need to name that I find it particularly obnoxious when the ideologues pan other Christians (often female bloggers) for talking in intuitive terms about the God whom they have come to know in their hearts instead of chapter-versing according to a deductive, systematic logic. Intuition is ridiculed as choosing “feelings” and “desires” over the hegemonic logic in which the ideologue’s power is rooted.

So I’ll just say that I have gained intuitions about the God whom I love and serve that I don’t feel the need to proof-text, though many of these intuitions have come to me through the long-term marinade of God’s word in scripture. Many of these intuitions incline me against the carefully laid-out arguments of certain systematic logicians, arguments which I shouldn’t be able to win, but God often gives me the undeserved mischievous delight of seeing things like the “what if” that will not allow Romans 9:22 to be anything other than hypothetical or the relics in Genesis 3:22 and 11:6 of whatever ancient Near Eastern myths were used to develop Genesis that forces the inerrantist to admit that the plain meaning of the text exposes a lack of sovereignty and foreknowledge on the part of God. In any case, I would much rather be lost in God’s poetry like the cataracts that sweep over the psalmist and the stars that sing without words than have all of God’s word diagrammed and stacked carefully into a wall of explanation. I would rather have the heart of Christ than a flawless ideology.

16 thoughts on “Do you read the Bible for ideology or discipleship?

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  4. This is beautiful and nourishing, Morgan! Growing up, “serious” Bible study involved multi-colored pens, charts, graphs, and outlines, and it has been so difficult to read it any other way. The Psalms sustained my dried-out faith (though I had a hard time with all those verses about the Lord putting “enemies” to death in various gruesome and humiliating ways) until a visiting preacher suggested that my literature classes provided a better lens through which to see the Bible. This wrestling with scripture-as-narrative hasn’t made reading the Bible easier, but I think it’s saved my faith. When it was easy, it felt dead.

    • “Growing up, ‘serious’ Bible study involved multi-colored pens, charts, graphs, and outlines.” I’ve always marveled at Bibles that have been carefully highlighted in multiple colors. I guess my only reservation about that, other than the fact that I would inevitably smudge since I’m still in the process of failing kindergarten, is that my insights about a particular passage would be locked in as permanent by my highlighting so it couldn’t talk to me differently. I guess you could get a new Bible each year and make new highlights. “This wrestling with scripture-as-narrative hasn’t made reading the Bible easier, but I think it’s saved my faith. When it was easy, it felt dead.” Amen!

  5. Romans 1:26-32 is another list of sins “worthy of death” which include everything from homosexuality to gossiping. I couldn’t agree more that the church has lost its focus when it comes to sin categories and that we lose the moral high ground when we single out, for example, homosexuality while gossip is perhaps doing far worse damage to the church. The preaching against ALL sin has become a lost art in the church and until we put up the sniper rifle (single subject focus) and pull out the thunder bust (blasting away at all sin), we have little room to have a voice the un-churched will even hear much less respond to (at least in any positive way).

  6. Crystal clear,.. and hands down, one of the best blogs you have ever written!! So beautiful, so powerful.
    Sometimes I do feel the need to dissect every word of a verse (Praise God for Bible Gateway, Morgan Guyton, and other sites!) until I can understand it, but not for argument sake, or to be used as a “weapon”, as scripture often is. I can’t make a cake without a recipe, nor attempt to cook without any basic ingredients—“absolute truth” is never necessary with an indescribable Faith. I appreciate balance in a community of honest scholars who daily seek and love God as much as I do.
    I am also humbled (but never ashamed) to admit that by the power of the Holy Spirit, I do know, and have always known without doubt, why I am here on earth, and what I am ment to do. I think you do too, Morgan.

    • “I am also humbled (but never ashamed) to admit that by the power of the Holy Spirit, I do know, and have always known without doubt, why I am here on earth, and what I am meant to do. I think you do too, Morgan.” It has taken me a long time to own that. But He won’t let me disavow it any longer.

  7. I’ll be digesting this one for a few days. I struggle with reading the Bible has an ideologue vs. a disciple. Especially in the culture we live in today where there are so many misconceptions about Christianity.

  8. After wasting away the first almost 45 years of my life – in church, in never being taught effectively about the Bible and feeling incompetent when it came to understanding the Bible, I was awakened to the fact that as I started reading the Bible under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, much of it became coherent to me. But then I encountered those who would dismiss my thoughts regarding certain verses and I was almost confused until I heard a whisper in my ear, “Stop believing those who have theological implications for each book, virtually every chapter and too often, the verses.
    Start reading it as the history that it is – of God’s people struggling against their own inclinations and the powers that were aligned against them and then, the revelation of a Savior – who was concerned about all of the people every where on this planet.

    Suddenly, it all made sense and now that I have experienced over thirty years of dealing with similar temptations and facing those who are opposed to even the idea of a Creator, I am not only at peace within, but am prone to love all of His creation.

    To me, it is not complicated as long as we fix our thoughts on the One whose grace has removed the guilt that would condemn us and treat those who do not yet understand with the love that has been showered on me.

    • “To me, it is not complicated as long as we fix our thoughts on the One whose grace has removed the guilt that would condemn us and treat those who do not yet understand with the love that has been showered on me.” Yes! I’m still working on the latter but I really want to learn how.

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