Biblically Shamed

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery . . . . Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
Galatians 5:1, 26

There’s this thing called Bible Quizzing.  It’s a competitive organization that challenges young people to memorize large sections of the bible.  I had no idea such a thing existed until, as a senior in high school, I visited a Sunday school class that took Bible Quizzing very seriously.  It was a horrifying experience.  

The Sunday school teacher asked a question about something in one of the Gospels.  Everyone in the room looked at the current Bible Quizzing champ and waited for him to answer.  I wasn’t aware of this protocol so I blurted an answer at the same time the champ did.  Our answers were not the same.  I was told I was wrong and he was right and then everyone proceeded to tell me how incredibly holy this kid was because of his memorizing prowess.  The Sunday school teacher didn’t even look it up; she just told everyone the champ was correct.  I’ve made you all well aware before of my impertinence, so what’s next should not surprise you: I protested, rather vehemently . . . insisting that the passage should at least be looked up and read.  The teacher refused to do so, not accustomed to my kind of candor.  So I looked it up and read it aloud.  I won’t tell you who was right, because it doesn’t really matter.[1]

The arrogance of the champ and his peers infuriated me.  The bible and the study of it, I knew was supposed to lead somewhere other than arrogance.[2]  But their arrogance led to my shame, which I reacted toward with anger.  I knew that there were other people in the room who also felt ashamed because of their arrogance.[3]  They reacted to shame with a self-loathing ambivalence toward the Bible.  So in this room you had two groups of people: the biblically quizzified and the biblically shamed.  The bible was being used to create classes of Christian youth.  

Unfortunately, biblical literacy has often been used as a measure of Christian holiness.  As long as this is the case, there will be a broad group of Christians who believe that they are second-class Christians.  That’s because there’s a huge group of well-intentioned people out there who really struggle to read the Bible with regularity. Reading the Bible does not make anyone holy . . . no more than watching the Seahawks play makes you a defensive lineman.  Holiness is a matter of the heart . . . a heart shaped after the heart of Christ.  Therein lies the point of personal and corporate Bible study—it must point us to the heart of Christ and compel us to live likewise.  Otherwise, it’s a time consuming practice of missing the point.   

The reason part of the arrow is an arm is that I think our communities play a crucial role in this process.

It is not a Christian duty.

It is not a measure of holiness.

It is not a competition. 

It is a journey into and through the compassionate, loving, tender, merciful, heart of Jesus.  A journey he longs to go on with each and every one of us.  If you didn’t read it today or you haven’t read it for a year he is not mad at you like a boss is when you don’t accomplish a task.  He is like a mother or father who deeply misses spending time with their child.[4]  It has been my experience that when I return to him after an absence there is not a hint of vindictiveness or shame.  There are loving arms of sweet embrace.  The vindictiveness and the shame are in my head and endemic to the Church-propelled system of holy hierarchy. 

You are not a super-Christian if you read your bible.  You are not a second-class Christian if you struggle to read.  There is now, no favoritism. We are free from the slavery of shame and inequality. Christ has leveled the ground by his grace.  Let us, without hierarchy, competition, or envy go looking for his heart, that we might experience his compassion and be deeply shaped by it.

[1] It’s not until my late twenties that I can now sincerely say, “it doesn’t matter.”  It isn’t that I love to tell you stories that make me look bad, it’s just that there are so many of them.
[2] For the record, I have nothing against Bible Quizzing.  I have everything against using biblical knowledge as a way to stratify the church.  Bible reading that leads to arrogance is harmful and one of the great sins of Christian history.
[3] As I remember, I was actually asked to go to the class so that I could experience the shame for myself.  Several of my friends who attended this church felt like they were looked down upon every week.
[4] It seems important to point out here that reading the bible is one of many ways to connect with God.  I think you can connect with him while doing the dishes, writing a blog, chatting with a friend, sipping a cup of coffee, etc. I would say that reading scripture provides a theological grounding to these other experiences—as does involvement in a Jesus-devoted community of faith.


  1. This is GOOD, Matt. Thank-you. I remember these activities very well from SS and youth group in the 60s. As we discussed Sunday afternoon, your message (and now this blog) are an encouragement and challenge to me - an area in which I NEED those. ...and I look forward to getting to know you and the River St. family better, too :-)

  2. Great topic Matt and thanks for putting this out there!
    After my spiritual awakening in 2007 that led to bible studies and mentorships that eventually culminated Prison Ministry volunteerism, I encountered many individuals who imparted the importance (in their minds) of being to cite scripture in the midst of any challenge or situation. While I'm certain that for many that is a great tool, the unfortunate part of it is what you touched on; the competitiveness of scriptural citation and the perceptions of how having the ability to cite scripture somehow sets certain individuals apart in perceived "holiness".
    My conviction came on the heels of profound and scary long-term idiopathic illness. When it was finally diagnosed, and the damage was sorted out, one of the things I suffered was permanent long-term neurologically-based damage (albeit minor) to the executive-function portion of the brain. As a result I developed an odd dyslexia as well a substantial short-term memory loss. Fortunately over time I have been able to re-train my brain to overcome "some" of this, but it will be a lifelong struggle for me. So of course scriptural memorization for me is not simply effective. A woman at the church I was attending was known to fellow parishioners for her amazing talent of being able to cite the entire book of Acts (of course) word for word. There was a certain reverence that intimated she had reached a higher plain of "holiness" (I never experienced that coming from her mind you, but from others in the congregation; she was actually quite humble about it). But that along with the mentors and others who stressed the importance of scripture citation, left me feeling inadequate as a Christian; that I was somehow missing "something". To me this is the same dynamic that exists regarding speaking in tongues at many apostolic churches; that if you don't have it, you must be missing something.
    So after much prayer and meditation, following a season of feeling like I was failing God in some way, the Holy Spirit spoke to me telling me that "parrots can recite words with enough repetition" (sorry, that's what I heard). The message to me was while God may appreciate such dedication to His Holy Word, He is not standing in judgment of us on how well we recite it. What He does care about however is the "message". And in either case, whether it is a fundamental understanding of the message, or possessing the ability to quote scripture, neither of those things in and of themselves sets us apart. When Eugene Peterson decided to do an interpretation of the bible, he didn't choose to follow the path of verbiage; instead he literally followed the path of conveying "The Message".
    Frank Zappa once said "the crux of the biscuit is the apostrophe". I like the "crux of the biscuit" and that is what I will continue to strive for.
    Terry Carlson


Post a Comment

Popular Posts