The cry to “make the Bible relevant to today’s world” not only implies that the Bible itself lacks relevance, a point discussed yesterday, it also makes another assumption that is quite startling. This has to do with the allied demand that “making the Bible relevant” involves making it “practical.”
While several problems haunt this claim, I’ll go for the big one: this preoccupation with relevance and practicality borders on idolatry.
First, it implies that our lives, and our needs, form the entire domain in which genuinely valuable truth can exist. If something is not immediately relevant or evidently useful to us, we judge it unimportant. But seriously, do we want to make our own felt needs the ultimate standard, indeed, the final filter, for what is true? That approach to life gave us polytheism—rain gods, fertility gods, war gods, love gods and the rest. Or that approach gives us atheism: if we only believe in or about God as we need to, what if someone decides they don’t need that? Is our faith just the projection of our needs into a fabricated Therapist and Fixer In the Sky?
Second, demanding that all biblical teaching and preaching be obviously “relevant” and immediately “practical” collapses all of truth into stuff we can “use.” But if our relationship with God is one of personal devotion, faith and even intimacy, is “use” really the central thing going on there? Seriously, did you marry your wife because she would do your laundry? Did you pick your husband because he could repair stuff? That’s practical, that’s relevant, and these are admirable things… but you don’t want your spouse to have chosen you because of that! Do any of us in our most important relationships really think that “use” or “function” is the main point?
Imagine having an acquaintance who never seems to be interested in you, your actual daily life, beyond a bit of chitchat, until they need something from you? They don’t seek out your conversation, show no signs of relishing your company. Then suddenly it’s “Hey, old buddy…!” and when the crisis is past… crickets. They are more like clients than friends, projects, not builders in our lives. Of course all of us have people we love to help partly because it really is rewarding to help people out. But authentic relationships circle around things that go deeper, that aren’t always “practical.”
I wonder what God thinks when we skip parts of the Bible that talk about the mysteries of his ways, the peculiar eternal intimacy between the Father and the Son, the deep wisdom that lies behind the creation, the great purposes of God for the universe… Or we skip over his detailed descriptions of how ancient Israel was to live and function as a worshiping, serving community in the word (like Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy!) and say, “Forget that stuff, can you help me improve my self-esteem?”
I love Franz Kafka’s statement about reading and books:
If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy?…we should be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us.* [italics added]
In the end… if the Bible does not seem relevant to my life, maybe, just maybe, it’s my life that needs to change.
Maybe the problem of relevance is not the Bible, but ourselves.
*Kafka quotation in “Letter to Oskar Pollak, 27 January 1904” in Max Brod (ed.) Briefe, 1902-1924 (New York: Schocken, 1958). Translations vary, this is from George Steiner, “To Civilize Our Gentlemen,” in Language and Silence, (New York: Atheneum, 1986) 67.