I have testimony weightier than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to finish—the very works that I am doing—testify that the Father has sent me. And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent. You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
- John 5:36-40 (NIV)
Earlier this year, Chattanooga, Tennessee, was named the “Most Biblical City in the United States” in a poll commissioned by the American Bible Society.
I grew up in Chattanooga. Spent 15 very formative years there, and met many Bible people. I still visit there a couple of times a year, and enjoy it very much. But I haven’t see anything to suggest that Chattanooga was “more biblical” than, say, Des Moines, Iowa (53rd in the rankings), or Wichita, Kansas (15th) or even the city where I live now, Chicago (74th). I’m not sure what the criteria for the rankings were. Number of Bibles in the city? Church participation? It’s hard to measure biblicism; someone who owns a Bible doesn’t necessarily read it, and even those who read it might not live by it. It seems to me that the poll tries to quantify something that can’t very well be quantified. Even the terminology is difficult.
Sodom and Gomorrah were, after all, biblical cities.
We use that term “biblical” a lot, we church people. It has a comforting ring to it, makes us feel ethically, morally, and doctrinally warm and cozy. We sometimes rate sermons on how biblical they are. Churches. We try to plot opinions and positions somewhere on a sliding scale of biblicism. Seems we even try to rank cities.
But our attempts at ranking biblicism are, as they say, fraught with peril, as James Peron demonstrates.
James Peron is president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, a libertarian organization “dedicated to the expansion of social freedom, tolerance, and equality of rights before the law.” In an article on Huffington Post, Peron compared the top ten cities in the “most biblical” poll with the bottom ten. What he found might surprise you:
“For every 100,000 people the Bible-minded cities had 1.2 murders. The least Bible-minded cities had 0.7 per 100,000. In other words, you are almost twice as likely to be murdered in the most Bible-minded cities than in the least Bible-minded ones.
“Rape seems to also be a problem for Bible-minded cities. The rape rate per 100,000 people was 5.4 in the ten most fundamentalist cities and 3.9 in the ten most secular cities.
“If you are worried about someone breaking into your house, it appears you need to head to a secular city to reduce your chances of being victimized. The top 10 Bible cities had 127.7 burglaries per 100,000 while the average was 109 in the top 10 secular cities.”
Or maybe that doesn’t surprise you that much, because maybe you already know that the word “biblical” can also be used as a smokescreen to hide or even justify all manner of unsightly and unseemly things. What’s more biblical — a sermon that directly quotes no biblical text, but is filled with the spirit of God and the gospel of Jesus, or a sermon that strings together verse after verse to justify and encourage monstrous evil? What’s more biblical — a church that uses the Bible as a wall to keep the world away, or a church that loves its neighbor, feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and prays with the hurting and marginalized? Who’s more biblical — a judge who keeps the Ten Commandments tacked up on the courthouse wall, or one who renders decisions with fairness and justice?
Almost every Sunday for twenty years, I’ve stood in front of a church and tried to preach a sermon that is true to Scripture. I take that job seriously, and spend a lot of time preparing — again, by studying the Bible. But if I take Jesus seriously, then the most important thing to happen on a Sunday when I preach is not that I know the Bible well, or that the people who hear me come away knowing the Bible better. Jesus told people who were “diligent” students of Scripture, who were convinced that in those Scriptures were words of “eternal life,” that they had “never heard [God’s] voice nor seen his form.” And why not? They knew the Bible. They knew God’s word. We would have called them biblical. But his word didn’t dwell in them. And they missed something important. In clinging to that “biblical” label, they missed Jesus.
I’m afraid that can still happen to us.
Before we dare call ourselves biblical, we have to let God’s word live in us. It can’t be just words on a page to us: data to be processed, information to be stored and retrieved at will, evidence to be mustered, arguments to be mustered, accusations to be made. We must live with it, let it soak into our hearts and minds until it comes out in our most unguarded words and actions. The words of Paul to the church tell us what we need as well, the answer to empty biblicism — “let the word of Christ inhabit you.” Preachers, teachers, the church doesn’t need to know more about the Bible. The church needs the word of Christ living in us.
Actually, what Paul says could be better translated, “let the word of Christ inhabit y’all.” That “you” is actually in the second person. The implication is that the word of Christ lives in us best when it lives in us together. It’s no coincidence that some of the worst atrocities ever done in the name of Jesus have happened when one individual or segment of the church has had too much say in the interpretation of Scripture. Wherever there is an “official” interpretation, the living Word is in danger of being entombed.
The Bible is not, as some would tell us, antiquated. It still speaks, still lives in us if we’ll let it. But, to let it, maybe we’ll have to let go of that “most biblical” label. If we’ll let the living Word have his way with us, together, then we’ll be something more than biblical. We’ll be like him.