Dear megachurch pastors, the Bible is not boring 6

I received this exciting email a week or so ago from the YouVersion Bible app (which I use and appreciate) with the subject line, See the Bible Come Alive this March:

Have you ever tried to picture what Noah’s family experienced during the flood? What it looked like when Samson destroyed the temple? How it felt to be present when the wise men knelt before Jesus?

As we study God’s Word, it’s helpful to understand the context in which these events took place. The Bible series, from television’s top husband-and-wife team Roma Downey and Mark Burnett, is the greatest visualization of the Bible we’ve ever seen. From Genesis to Revelation, this five-part series combines a powerful collection of stories with live action and truly amazing CGI.*

While context is essential in interpreting Scripture, how does a fictional visualization provide that, especially one created by a man who made his fortune helping us more effectively visualize selfish liars in bikinis in the Survivor television series? Does it matter what the destroyed temple looked like? Surely the point of that story is God’s providence and faithfulness, not the CGI of falling buildings.

Doesn’t the Bible provide enough of a word picture of what the flood was like? I might have assumed that part of the story about the raven and dove was that Noah couldn’t visualize what the world looked like and needed to rely on their evidence. If Noah couldn’t and didn’t need to see it, why do I?

How is a television screen going to help me feel what it was like to kneel before Jesus? The wise men fell down and worshipped because of who they knew Jesus was from Scripture, not from the specific elements of the scene. Burnett simply can’t give enough context just using pictures to describe the worshipful awe of being in the presence of the long-promised Messiah. Only the entire Old Testament can do that.

I can imagine Burnett advertising the show as something that brings the Bible to life, though it is surprising to see YouVersion, a Bible company, make such a claim. If you’re in the business of publishing the Bible, surely you ought to know better than anyone that the Bible is quite sure of itself that it is alive. All you need to do to see the Bible come to life is to read it:

The word of God is living and active. (Hebrews 4:12)

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8)

Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways [Scripture]. (Psalm 119:37)

The email finished with the following footnoted warning:

* Please note that these powerful stories contain scenes that are similar to PG-13 content. We encourage you to make the best viewing decisions for your family.

The real Bible tells its readers to repeat its contents to children, and its central character invites children to come to him and warns against anyone who would hinder them. If you can’t make the Bible into movie that children can watch, perhaps that’s not what it was intended for.

Another inherent weakness with the series is that it only purports to make Bible stories come to life, but the Bible is so much more than stories. The stories were never supposed to stand on their own, and they are usually given meaning by a broader narrative or by explicit teaching or prophecy. If you only read Scripture for stories, you’re not reading the whole of Scripture.

A few days after the YouVersion email, Holly Furtick, wife of Steven, used her blog to enthuse about her husband’s ability to also make the Bible come alive.

This weekend we began our series, In Fin 8, a series about the 8 greatest bible [sic] stories ever told.  We started in Genesis this week and we will end with the crucifixion and resurrection on Easter.

I have to be honest.  When I heard my husband was preaching on Adam and Eve this week I was not excited.  It is not at the top of my list of favorite Bible stories.  But once again, my husband took a passage of scripture [sic] I have heard so many sermons on and made it fresh and practical and inspiring.

Mrs. Furtick has a list of favorite stories? Why, and how does she organize her list? By entertainment, apparently. We saw this back in 2009, when her husband tweeted this observation:

Holly just told me the entertaining Bible stories are God’s way of apologizing for Leviticus.

As you can read in the ’09 post, Furtick rejoices in Moses’ death because he wants to get on with the story of Joshua, and one of his Elevation pastors complains that God made Deuteronomy too repetitive.

The impression we get is that the people who lead Elevation think the Bible is boring, so they’re especially thankful that Steven can work his magic on it to bring it to life. Steven does this, as his often does, by making the story of Adam and Eve all about us in a process that Chris Rosebrough calls narcigesismaking the point of Bible stories all about the preacher and the congregation.

The special irony here is that Furtick, just four days later, tells his congregation that if they don’t think they’re getting enough good teaching from him, they shouldn’t complain but read their Bible by themselves.

People in our churches: you also have a responsibility. If you refuse to study the Word, apply it, pray some during the week, join a small group and dig deeper with others, there’s not much we can do to help you. Your malnourishment won’t be cured by anything we give you on Sunday.

He’s right about the malnourishment on Sunday, but if the people in his leadership and congregation think the Bible is boring, even its most important stories, he’s failed in one of his most fundamental duties as a pastor.

Unfortunately, a low view of Scripture isn’t isolated to Furtick’s church. Noble’s staff put their lack of appreciation for Scripture on display in an official NewSpring devotional about how we hear from God. In it, it also bemoans the Bible’s lack of sizzle:

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that God is going to provide us with a burning bush to deliver His message. But, God still speaks today.

Why is that unfortunate, unless you thought God’s written revelation to us was insufficient? This assumes that we ought to look for more exciting, lively revelations, an assumption that denigrates the majesty and miracle of Scripture.

I agree with the God-still-speaks sentence, but if you thought that they are assuming, with me, that God still speaks today through Scripture, you’d be wrong. They say in the devotional that the Bible is just the foundation for God to speak new things to us, which he also does through the Holy Spirit and community. The devotional ends with the following advice:

In scripture [sic], we see God speak in a number of ways including an audible voice, visions, dreams, and even through a donkey. God can and does speak in miraculous ways but that does not mean He can’t or doesn’t speak through normal means. We can expect Him to amaze us but that doesn’t mean we should not use the tools He has already provided for us to hear His guidance and voice. He will speak and we can trust that His guidance will never contradict what He has already revealed in the Bible.

(A small but not insignificant point: Did you notice how often Holly Furtick and the NS devotional don’t capitalize Bible and Scripture? You can be sure they never miss the capital P in Pastor, but they routinely miss it for Scripture. It tells us something important, I think.)

Not only does Noble teach that his church should be dissatisfied with normalcy in religion, NewSpring presents the Bible as merely normal and decidedly non-miraculous, as if the Bible isn’t itself a miracle. The Bible is a marvelous living expression of God’s careful, infallible and sufficient written revelation to us. The miracles of Scripture are there to continually amaze us, not to make us require new ones, otherwise every generation would need a new miraculous display. Review the Old Testament, for example, and note how many times miracles are followed by instructions that the Israelites tell the story to their children. God expected his people to trust the word of the original witnesses, and not expect that we would see the same thing ourselves. John makes the point carefully at the end of his Gospel. After describing Thomas’ experience of the miracle of Jesus’ resurrection by letting Thomas see his wounds because he didn’t believe the eyewitness accounts of his fellow disciples, Jesus asks him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

The point of the Thomas story is to tell us that we must take John and the other Bible writers’ word for what happened. Look at how John gives us the point directly in the next verses:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John continues the lesson with the prediction of Peter’s death and the rumor about whether Jesus had said that John wouldn’t die. What’s his point? That John and Peter are going to die shortly, meaning that the eyewitnesses to Jesus’ teaching and miracles would be gone. With that in mind, he pens the epilogue to the Gospel:

This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true.

Now there are also many other things that Jesus did. Were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Yet after saying that he could keep writing, he stops, and he has already told us that what we have is enough for our belief. Although John’s Gospel wasn’t the very last thing written, it does tell us that revelation would be closed when the last apostolic eyewitnesses died. So although it is true that God revealed himself to his prophets and apostles in miraculous and unusual ways, John tells us that we aren’t to expect or require more. Even in Scripture, such revelations were unusual and often terrifying for the people who experienced them (see Cornelius, for example). They weren’t normal, even in Scripture.

NewSpring also assures us that we know these abnormal revelations are from God because they won’t contradict Scripture. It’s an empty claim, because not only would new revelation affirm Scripture, it would be Scripture, and, as we’ve already established, John has told us that it’s closed (at the end of his Gospel and at the end of the Book of Revelation). Whose voice are we hearing in Scripture but the Holy Spirit’s? It is impossible for the Holy Spirit, whose word is perfect, eternal and true, to recant his own affirmation that his written revelation was perfect and complete (in the sense that it is finished and sufficient, though not in the sense that it tells us everything).

God does indeed still speak today, but it’s through his own Scripture. He wrote it perfectly for 70 A.D. and for 2013 A.D. If we want to hear the Holy Spirit, he’s told us where to find him. In his infallible voice heard in Scripture alone.

6 thoughts on “Dear megachurch pastors, the Bible is not boring

  1. matt Mar 1, 2013 9:22 am

    I agree with the God-still-speaks sentence, but if you thought that they are assuming, with me, that God still speaks today through Scripture, you’d be wrong. They say in the devotional that the Bible is just the foundation for God to speak new things to us, which he also does through the Holy Spirit and community.

    Dr. Duncan,

    Maybe I’m misreading this, but are you saying that God doesn’t use the Holy Spirit and community to speak to us?

    • James Duncan Mar 1, 2013 11:40 pm

      I absolutely believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to us, though it’s always through Scripture alone.

      I don’t believe that God speaks to us through community. (He does speak through faithful Biblical preaching, though I don’t know if you’d include that in community.) I would say that the Holy Spirit leads us through community, though that’s usually not something we become aware of until after we’ve reached the destination, not before. Leading is not the same thing as speaking, and the main difference is that we can always be sure of his Word. We simply cannot equate our friends’ advice as anywhere near as trustworthy as the sure Word of God.

      Regarding the Holy Spirit speaking, if you’re game for a little bit of friendly dialog and Bible study, take a look at the context of the verse that the NS devotional quoted and consider who the “you” is.

      When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13)

      What does that context do to the meaning and application of the verse?

  2. matt Mar 4, 2013 2:07 pm

    Thank you for your response. This is very interesting. I would interpret the “you” in John 16.13 as the Disciples (or probably the Apostles including Paul). I assume the implication is that the Holy Spirit would speak directly and clearly to these Apostles so that they could communicate with the rest of us through their roles in writing the New Testament and/or testifying to the early church. This probably shouldn’t be read as a simple truth to all subsequent believers, but only for us (as believers) to recognize the authority by which the writers of the New Testament are writing.

    Would the argument then be, that God only speaks to us through Scripture whether that be by the reading of Scripture or hearing it preached because the only ones he has given this particular revelation to are the Apostles?

    I would also like to understand what you mean by “leading is not the same thing as speaking”. I believe that advice from friends is completely useless, unless they are reminding me of the gospel (which is news, not advice) and my new identity that the gospel provides me. I think this is true whether I’m being confronted by a fellow believer about sin, or if I’m seeking counsel. Would you classify this as “faithful Biblical preaching” (is that reserved for ordained ministers?), or would this be the Leading of the Holy Spirit through community?

    • James Duncan Mar 6, 2013 1:45 pm

      Matt, I think you and I see the same thing in that passage. The verse gives us confidence that what we are reading in John and from the other Apostles is accurate and trustworthy. To the extent that it can be applied to non-Apostles like us, it tells us that the Holy Spirit works to guide us into all truth through Scripture, but not in the same way that he guided John.

      Yes, I think the argument is that we can say that God speaks through Scripture, which does include preaching. To that we also acknowledge that creation itself declares the glory of God, but that is a different form of revelation than the direct, verbal revelation that we’re usually talking about when we refer to hearing from God.

      We know that God leads us, even though that leading can’t be classified as God speaking. For example, when Joseph was out looking for his brothers, he met a stranger in a field who told him where to look (Genesis 37:15-17). If Joseph hadn’t found that man, or if the man had given him wrong directions, Joseph would not have found them, would not have been imprisoned by them, would not have been sold, etc. God led Joseph into trouble (for God’s ultimate glory) through the speech and advice of a stranger. Were the stranger’s directions God speaking to Joseph? I’d say no, even though I would say that God was leading Joseph through that advice.

      So, I think that God uses community to lead us in matters that are time-bound and idiosyncratic (applying only to an individual). God uses preaching to speak to us clearly about things that are timeless and universal.

      Regarding friends who refer us to Scripture, that is what we’re told to do as believers — to meditate on and talk about Scripture. We are really speaking about God speaking, which is proper and good. Though I can’t point you to a defensible definition of preaching at the moment, I think we can distinguish preaching from friendly advice by considering the public nature of the declaration. A preacher preaches the universal message of God to all the people assembled to hear, whereas a counselor speaks to a single person privately (to some extent) about more individual matters, like what Scripture says about my particular problem or sin.

  3. Dan Mar 8, 2013 4:29 pm

    Dr. Duncan,

    I recently found your blog after reading about some of your troubling experiences with NewSpring church. I was horrified and it left me questioning my previous inclinations to visit that church. Through my empathy I started reading many of your other posts and honestly…I’m a little disturbed.

    I realize that the purpose of this particular post is to present the argument that Furtick, Noble, and others like them have a “diminished” view of the Bible. However, the argument as presented is weak. The basis, it seems , is on their very transparent and sometimes embarrassing statements about the particular books they are reading – all inspired by the disdain you seem to have for using cinema to tell Bible stories. In the end though, it’s just an email, some snippets of their words, and a few 120 character tweets.

    I understand why you might continue criticizing Noble but I’m not so sure about Furtick or why you choose to target every other megachurch in your post. You have a very big testimony about the wrong that was done to you and unfortunately, the more I read Pajama Pages, the more I wonder whether you’re the type of person who goes looking for trouble. This blog does not do justice to you and those experiences. It makes you look like a nit-picky person who’s sitting around waiting for the slightest out-of-place word, only to use it as a launching point for criticism.

    And all for what? There’s no searing, caught red-handed evidence of unrepentant sin from the pastors. No clear demonstration of blasphemous teaching. Jesus is still being preached as the Way, Truth, and Life; our salvation by grace through His death and resurrection. So then, aside from revealing what happened with NewSpring, what good purposes are you accomplishing here with all this criticism towards everyone else?

    With respect,

  4. SallyVee Mar 9, 2013 3:04 pm

    Chris Rosebrough @ FightingForTheFaith did a very interesting comparison on his Friday show, featuring Perry Noble. It’s a Must Hear for NewSpringers. Chris warned that the segment would be “brutal” and indeed it is. I actually felt some sympathy for Perry Noble…. he is so lost and immature. I worry tremendously for members of NewSpring who have never been exposed to proper teaching, or ever heard sound Biblical doctrine preached. Well here’s your chance to start taking stock of your pastor and his preaching/teaching skills.

    Please listen. Then if you are a member of NewSpring, consider taking a breather and instead spend time reading Scripture on your own and being shepherded by the pastors you will hear on the recording – all of them can be found online very easily in voluminous quantity. NOTE: you’ll also need to bring your sense of humor because the intro begins with Rosebrough’s irreverent but spot on “Perry Noble Theme Song” – from a Disney movie.

    F4F Sermon Prep Comparison (22 min.):

    In the same episode above, I strongly urge EVERYONE to listen to the last segment. It’s Phil Johnson speaking about what it means to be a Shepherd, to a gathered assembly of pastors. As is always the case with Phil Johnson, he covers so much ground so well and so clearly, that you may want to listen twice. I’ll confess I have a Playlist of ‘Favorite Phil Sermons & Talks’ and I never tire of hearing them.

    Here’s the link – Phil Johnson begins at about the 1:08:00 mark and goes for about 55 min.:

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