It was one of the more memorable fun flicks from the ’80s. Wayne Szalinski (played by Rick Moranis) was the mad scientist working on an incredible shrinking ray. Sadly, he only managed to blow things up, until the day his invention worked, accidentally shrinking two of his own children and two of the neighbor’s. The rest of “Honey, I shrunk the kids” revolves around the hapless teens’ attempts to avoid dangers lurking in the lawn while their parents search frantically for their diminutive offspring.
Herein lies a cautionary tale: We can shrink things unintentionally that were never intended to be shrunk.
Take the Bible, for instance. Sometimes I wonder whether we’ve reduced both its size and its function.
1. From Bibles to “Bible-ettes”?
Wes Tracy, former professor of homiletics at Nazarene Theological Seminary, lamented that sermons were getting too short, warning his preaching students: “Sermon-ettes make Christian-ettes.” But is the same shrinking phenomenon not apparent when it comes to our use of Scripture? Many are the evangelical churches that read only bits of Scripture during worship. When we do, it’s usually projected on a screen, leaving little incentive for churchgoers to bring a Bible to service. (This is a shame for tactile learners, who are deprived a chance to engage with the material through their fingers).
Having one’s “canon within the canon” is nothing new, but in recent years, is there not an even greater tendency to limit where we go in Scripture to hear the voice of the LORD? Let’s take the Old Testament for starters. Genesis — um, don’t really want to get into the whole creation vs. evolution battle. Leviticus? All those sacrifices leave my head spinning! Joshua — the first chapter about being courageous is good, but the genocide part…maybe not. Ah, Psalms…well at least some of them. We’d better leave out the angry parts. Song of Solomon? Cover our children’s eyes! Maybe we’ll leave that book for the marriage enrichment retreat. Major and minor prophets? Don’t really like the whole “Woe unto you!” routine.
Then there’s the New Testament. By some people’s account, 1/3 of it was written by that woman hating, gay bashing, slave-owner loving Pharisee named Paul. Peter and James were O.K. I guess, though you have to watch out for the latter – says Martin Luther – since apparently James thinks we can get to heaven by our good deeds. Revelations…er, Revelation, is just plain weird and doesn’t help promote peace in the Middle East. Acts has some good things in it, though Paul giving his testimony three times gets a bit annoying.
So what are we left with? The Gospels! Ah yes, Jesus, the Kingdom, the good stuff. Jesus loved everybody. Jesus was like Barney the Dinosaur: “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family.” Never mind that Jesus cursed a fig tree for bearing no fruit out of season, upbraided the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, cleared out the Temple, tossing the evil moneychangers on their ear and repeatedly spoke of hell’s destruction. No, let’s keep with the rainbows and gum-drops image of Jesus. That’s a lot safer. As it turns out, even the Gospels need some pruning.
Am I exaggerating? Perhaps a tad for the sake of argument, but when the dust settles, what do we have left? We end up not with Bibles, but Bible-ettes, and I think Dr. Tracy would agree with me: Bible-ettes make Christian-ettes.
2. Faith, practice, or both? Shrinking the Bible’s function
By marginalizing the sections of the Bible that are troublesome – whether because they prescribe moral standards no longer in vogue or condone practices difficult to explain – we manage to side-step some thorny issues, at least for now. After all, don’t we want our churches to grow? How can people feel comfortable coming through our doors if we address the darker and more demanding side of Scripture?
Ignoring the tougher parts of the Bible can work for a time, but eventually a curious child will ask the tough questions:
“Dad, the Bible says not to get divorced, but my Sunday School teacher got divorced and re-married, twice.”
“Mom, why is it O.K. for a soldier to kill someone when the Ten Commandments says: ‘You shall not kill”?
“Jesus said: ‘Give to the one who asks from you.’ Why didn’t we give something to that beggar outside the grocery store?”
“My English teacher, Miss Smith, invited the class to her wedding this Saturday. She’s marrying the social studies teacher, Miss Jones. Can I go?”
Now comes crunch time. For the Christian endeavoring to live like one, each example above begs the question: What is the Bible for? What is its function? Is the Bible meant to show us how to become followers of Jesus, how to “get saved” as some call it? Is it for comforting us in our time of distress? Is it for showing us the proper way to worship God, the meaning of sacraments and preaching? Thankfully, the Bible serves all these purposes, and serves them well. That is why historically Christians have considered the Bible the “go to” book on all matters related to faith. But if we stop there, are we not in danger of shrinking the Bible’s purpose? Truth be told, the Bible is not just our rule for matters of faith, but also matters of practice. It is the Christian’s guide not only for belief, but for life.
This is where things get trickier and where knowing how to properly interpret the Bible is a must. Not all that we find in the Bible serves as an example for us to follow. Solomon had a thousand wives, but that doesn’t mean we should have more than one spouse. David cut off Goliath’s head in battle, but that doesn’t give us license to set up guillotines and – like the French Revolution – start chopping off heads. Tabitha made cloaks for the poor, but that doesn’t mean that every female Christian must take up the domestic arts. The basic distinction is simple: Sometimes the Bible simply describes what people did, without commentary. That doesn’t necessarily mean we are supposed to imitate that example. On the other hand, the Bible sometimes moves beyond mere description. Instead of saying “here’s what they did,” it insists: “Here’s what you must do (or avoid doing).” Rather than describing, Scripture prescribes. These are the “oughts” and the “ought nots” of the Bible, and they are the very marrow of its ethical teaching, including:
“Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength…” (Deut. 6:5)
“Be holy, because I am holy.” (Lev. 11:44-45, 19:2; 1 Peter 1:16)
“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24, Matt. 19:5)
“You shall not steal.” (Ex. 20:15)
“Visit orphans and widows in their affliction” (James 1:27)
It is this prescribing, this “here’s how you should live” part that – to steal a line from “The Music Man” – can be the raspberry seed in our collective wisdom tooth. Sometimes we would just like to change what the Bible says, making it more palatable. This happened in 1631, with the so-called “Wicked Bible,” printed by Robert Barker and Martin Lucas and immediately recalled. What was the problem? The word “not” was missing from the Seventh Commandment, so it read: “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Barker and Lucas were fined 300 pounds. It’s still not clear how the mistake made it to print.
In our time, are we also in danger of revisionism, of shrinking the Bible’s purpose, of de facto marginalizing Scripture even while claiming in our creeds to honor it? If Scripture becomes nothing more than a liturgical resource for worship, or a sourcebook for a memorized catechism, then we indeed will have severed Christian faith from Christian ethics. Once separated, both will shrivel and die.
SPOILER ALERT: At the end of “Honey, I shrunk the kids,” Wayne Szalinski discovered the shrunken teenagers and zapped them back to their normal size. The damage was reversible. In the same way, the “shrinking” of the Bible can be undone. The larger parameters of Scripture can be retraced and its full purpose restored. Only then will we have the kind of balanced, healthy churches that not only attract people but keep them, becoming places of incredible transformation. Give me that kind of a robust Bible. Give me that kind of a loving church.