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 narcigesis, making 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.