The Bible: It’s Just Not That Into You

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So some friends recently pointed me to the Personal Promise Bible, in which you can personalize the biblical text to include you name in over 7,000 places. 

Some examples provided on the Web site: 

2 Peter 1:4 – “By which He has granted to Joe His precious and exceedingly great promises; that through these Joe may become a partaker of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world by lust.” 

Isaiah 53:4-6 “Surely He has borne Rachel's sickness, and carried her suffering; yet we considered Him plagued, struck by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for Rachel's transgressions. He was crushed for Rachel's iniquities. The punishment that brought Rachel peace was on Him; and by His wounds Rachel is healed.”

Matthew 5:13-16 “Rachel is the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men. Rachel is the light of the world. A city located on a hill can't be hidden. Neither do you light a lamp, and put it under a measuring basket, but on a stand; and it shines to all who are in the house. Even so, Rachel's light must shine before men; that they may see Rachel 's good works, and glorify her Father who is in heaven.” 

Um, no. 

[...Although this could provide great endorsement material for my next book: "Rachel Held Evans is the light of the world." - God]

While this product may be an extreme example, it points to the profound influence of Western individualism on our reading of the biblical text. Passages that were originally written for groups of people, and intended to be read and applied in a community setting (the nation of Israel, the various early churches, the first followers of Jesus), have been manipulated to communicate a personal, individual message…thus leading the reader away from the original corporate intent of the passage to a reaffirmation of the individualistic, me-centered, and consumerist tendencies of American religious culture. 

We see this everywhere: in worship set lists that focus exclusively on individual worship, individual sin, and individual connection to God; in desk calendars that turn Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord…”) into a personal promise; in the disproportionate emphasis in our churches on personal Bible study, personal prayer, and one’s “personal walk with God.” 

How easy it is to forget that, for most of its history, the Bible has been read, processed, and practiced in group settings! The notion of individual interpretation, in fact, is relatively new. 

In The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity--an excellent book that we will most certainly be discussing at length in the near future—Soong Chan Rah writes: 

“The American church, in taking its cues from Western, white culture, has placed at the center of its theology and ecclesiology the primacy of the individual. The cultural captivity of the church has meant that the church is more likely to reflect the individualism of Western philosophy than the value of community found in Scripture. The individualist philosophy that has shaped Western society and consequently shaped the American church reduces Christian faith to a personal, private, and individual faith…”

Rah observes how this captivity has affected our reading of the Bible: 

“If we were to pay attention to the intended audience of the various books of the Bible, we would find that only a handful of books were actually written exclusively to individuals—such as 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon. An overwhelming number of books in the Bible are written to communities: the people of God, the nation of Israel, the church in Colosse and Corinth, the seven churches in Asia Minor, etc. Yet why is that our reading of the text centers so much on the individual reading of Scripture versus a corporate reading as the overwhelming majority of Scriptures demand? In a typical American church, are we taking teaching intended for the community of faith and reducing it to an application exclusively on an individual  level?” 

This is not to say that the Bible cannot speak to us personally—it often does. (Many of the Psalms are quite personal.) But, ultimately, the Bible is meant to be read, interpreted, digested, discussed, and practiced in the context of community.  And the theological implications of an exclusively individualistic faith rather than a corporate faith are astounding.  There is a huge difference, after all, between claiming He has “borne our sickness, and carried our suffering….was pierced for our transgressions” and claiming He has borne “MY sickness, and carried MY suffering…was pierced for MY transgressions.” Such a reading renders the reconciling work of God into little more than a personal improvement project, with the individual at the center, rather than the sustained and relentless work of God to reconcile and redeem the whole world. 

I hate to break it to the creators of the Personal Promise Bible, but the Bible just isn’t that into you. 

It's got a lot more to say about us. 

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[...Not to mention all the confusion that arises when instructions directed toward a very specific group - Israel, for example, or the Corinthian church -  are applied to an individual. How much you want to bet that the Personal Promise Bible renders 1 Timothy 2:12 into "I do not permit Rachel to have authority over a man," but renders 1 Corinthians 11:6 into, "For if a woman does not cover her head, she might as well have her hair cut off"?]

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In what other ways do you observe this tendency to individualize the Christian faith and the gospel? 

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