If your bible is falling apart you probably aren’t.
~ John MacArthur
I have an old New American Standard Bible that is in sad shape. It is heavily dog eared, has some ripped pages, and is on at least the fourth duct-taped version of its binding. The “bison grain” cover is barely there and looks terrible. Numerous verses and passages are underlined and there are notes written in the margins. One could say it is falling apart. According to a popular Christian way of thinking I should be able to say that my life is, therefore, probably not falling apart.
Or I can say that kind of thinking is probably garbage.
The popular and pithy saying at the top of this post (attributed to the son of the man who baptized me – yes, I am that old) has been quoted ad nausia, and I am going to disagree with it because I believe it is, ironically, unbiblical. First let’s unpack it, shall we.
The idea is simple, the Bible is the “word of God” and should be read and understood by anyone who claims to be a Christian. I agree with the first part (though God speaks to us in other ways as well) and tend to agree with the second part. I say tend to agree because I don’t think it is necessary (both practically or conditionally) for a Christian to read the Bible. But I do think it is a good thing to do. But what does it mean to say, “your bible is falling apart?” It is fair to assume the quote implies that a falling apart bible is one that is well read, well studied, carried everywhere, and loved like an iPhone. Falling apart also implies that it is not yet completely apart and can still be read, studied, and cherished. It could be held together with rubber bands or kept in a box. It is not yet to the point of pages fluttering away in a strong wind. Still, it is long past the point where most people would give up other books as too sorry for anything but the free book bin on the sidewalk outside the used bookstore. It is the child’s stuffed animal that is so ragged and patched it has long ago ceased to look like the original animal it once was.
So, your bible is falling apart, but you are not falling apart. This must mean your life is “together.” To not fall apart, as in your life not falling apart, is something for which we all strive. We like predictability, lack of pain and suffering, and happiness. We look to God to help us make our lives hold together. God, as is popularly believed, will reward us for being true to Him, being on His team, doing the right things, having the right views. So, if your life is not falling apart then your family is doing good, your finances are doing good, your job is good, your health is good, your marriage is good, all is well. Or, if all is not well, then your attitude is good. You are weathering the storm, filled with joy in the midst of suffering, trusting God in the midst of suffering, clinging to that old rugged cross with happiness and gratefulness in a stormy sea. It’s not you that is falling apart. No matter what, good or bad, you are “together.”
The issue I have with this kind of perspective really has to do with faith and “being a Christian,” whatever that means. You see, we want (are desperate) to find a way to make visible faith. We know the handy sayings, like sola fide. We know it’s all about faith, right? But what is faith? For the apostles it just meant belief, as in I believe what Jesus said was true, or I believe God will keep his promises. To have faith means to believe the good news that Jesus and the apostles taught. But we know that belief in this sense is more than something like I believe two plus two is four, or I believe gravity keeps me stuck to the earth. We know that faith has a heart component. But the thing is we can’t see the heart. We even have trouble really knowing our own hearts. So we try to find ways to make faith visible.
How do we make faith visible? We create something we call Christianity. Now Christianity is constantly being debated. There are lots of perspectives, lots of examples, lots of arguments about what being and acting like a Christian is supposed to look like. We have centuries of Christendom, and various versions of that. We have alternatives to Christendom. We have ardent, political expressions, and many non-political expressions. We have the apologists and the missionaries and the soup kitchens. We see gloomy churches and happy churches and churches that are hip and churches that are covered in the patina of history. We are told to read our bibles, to have quiet times, to put God first, to go to church regularly, to be authentic. We are asked to give to churches, to missions, to causes, to the poor, to the needy, to campaigns. We hear religious speak, see religious haircuts, are given religious music, and modeled religious clothing. Then we are told to cut through all that and know that none of it matters if one’s heart is not in it. But we are not told to stop acting Christian, rather we are told to be Christian from the inside out. Be Christian and your life (the act) will follow.
All good, right? Except for one thing: once we are told that true Christianity is inward, we can’t help but ask, “what does that look like?” You see, faith is fundamentally and radically inward. No amount of outwardness can provide incontrovertible evidence of inwardness. If we want to know what faith really is, what it truly means to believe, the next step is not to look outward, but to look inward. But we cannot look that far inward. Besides, we are told otherwise. We are told that if you really have faith then your life will look such and such. We are told that belief spills out in a life that looks “Christian.” We may even be told that how you have thought about it is wrong, that there is a more radical or meaningful way to be Christian. It might come in the form of a call to genuine community, or specific doctrines, or something that is emergent, or something that is not. And all these “calls” will tie back to a faith that is understood as a psycho-emotional orientation of one’s heart. But inwardness, whether Saint Paul’s “inner man” or Kierkegaard’s “subjectivity,” is deeper than the psycho-emotional. It is so deep that one cannot control it, peg it, define it, categorize it, or even really nurture it. Faith is inwardness and inwardness is the work of the spirit of God in one’s life. It is deeper than emotions. It may even be deeper than the self.
Now I believe what James says about faith having works. Faith does come out, but not as religion, not even as Christianity. And it does not come out necessarily as a worn out bible. Faith comes out as a commitment to the things of God, and not as a choice so much as a discovery. Faith is seen when Abraham discovers he will still follow God even when God says to murder Isaac. I am convinced Abraham could not have predicted his response to God’s call.
And what are the things of God? Mostly not anything we call Christian; not religiosity, not doctrine, not denominations, not conferences on marriage, not music, not lifestyles, not social programs, not Sunday morning, not Christian haircuts. Rather the believer’s commitment is a radical orientation of the heart to what God is doing, mysterious as it is, in human history and in one’s life. In short, the things of God can be summed up as the gospel, and the gospel can be summed up as what it is that God is doing in human history. This is HIS-story (to put a cheesy t-shirt spin on it). This does not mean that none of those things most often associated with Christianity are not used by God in one way or another, of course they are, for nothing happens apart from God. But we must realize that everything else is also a part of the story God is writing, and this includes many things that would seem not Christian in nature; “out of scope” we would say in project management. We Christians must recognize that everything is “in scope” when it comes to what God is doing, for everything is God’s doing.
Another way to put it: True, authentic, biblical Christianity is first and foremost what God is doing (His spirit in the world) and not what we are doing. Christianity is (fundamentally) not something we do.
The problem is that the work of the spirit of God is unpredictable. What the spirit does in a person is both radical and unique. And though it may be for some ultimate good, it may not be “good” in a typically Christian sense. We forget too easily that the “pearl of great price” was purchased because the man sold everything else. He gave up, got rid of, handed over all that he had, all that was dear, all that was valuable in order to gain one thing. We may have to give up everything too, including our families, friendships, churches, communities, missions, marriages, children, parents, education, careers, everything. We will likely have to give up our precious self-concepts too. And Christianity itself may be one of the things we have to give up in order to enter the kingdom. A pastor I know once said he would rather his daughter be an unwed mother on crack who enters the kingdom of God than a pious church going Christian all her life who goes to hell. That shocked a lot of listeners, but it’s the perspective to have. Better to follow the spirit than to be a “Christian.”
Now, that position is not compatible with much of Christianity. If you come from a reformed type of Christianity, like I do, then you know the goal is about being an authentic Christian, based in the (written) Word of God, and exhibited in a godly life which, in part, means your bible will eventually fall apart and your life will be together.
According to the quote in question the “falling apart bible” and the “together life” go hand in hand. It is a formula. If you are not merely play acting at being Christian, then your heart is in the right place, and if your heart is in the right place it will manifest itself in a well-worn bible, and if your bible is well-worn then your life will be in a right relationship with God. Or, if you are in a right relationship with God your bible will get worn out. Or, if your heart is right, then your relationship with God is right, then your life will be right. Or, if you love God, then you will desire to read your bible, and if you read your bible you will find out how God wants you to live, and then your life will be together, unlike your bible. The problem is that this is all on the surface, even the “heart” in this scenario. It is just another version of the old “come to Jesus and your troubles will vanish,” though this time with less tent meeting and with more suit and tie.
That kind of thinking can get you in trouble. What Christians don’t want to believe is that formulas kill. The trouble with the reformed mindset is that after tearing down (metaphorically) the “religion” of Roman Catholicism it built up its own replacement formulas, with its own kind of religiosity, its piety, its doctrines, and its culture. We are not called to a kind of Christianity. We are not called to look a certain way, but to be a certain way. How that looks in your life may not look like anything typically understood as Christian and may even get you persecuted by other Christians. You may even find yourself saying, “My God, what happened?!”
But there is another problem that anyone who has spent some time on “Christian blogs” understands: The highly biblically literate individual who is on a mission to “save” the wayward blogger from his errors can also be the worst kind of unloving, un-Christlike, ass. One would think that someone with a well-worn bible would eventually come across passages that reference the downside of self-righteousness, or the importance of being loving and having humility, or the pitfalls of the Pharisees. In fact, another pithy saying might be, “Beware the man with the falling apart bible for he is probably a jerk.” I wish this were not the case, but religion is insidious and pervasive. What we know as Christianity, that is all the things people do, say, build, and define in the name of Christianity, has not solved the problem of hypocrisy. Phariseeism is the most pervasive denomination within Christianity. You see, the well worn bible may be evidence of the right sort of inwardness in one person and the wrong sort in a hundred others. The life that is “together” may be evidence of the right sort of inwardness in one person, and the wrong sort in a hundred others. But the truth is more like this: Come to Jesus and you will be tested, your life may fall apart, the bible might or might not speak to you, and the spirit of God just might shatter all your illusions, including the one called “Christianity.”
I propose another saying: “I would rather fall apart all the way to the Kingdom of God than to be cast into utter darkness with a well worn Bible.” Another way to put it is that I look forward to the day when my life is no longer falling apart. I know that day will come, for God is true to His word. but I also know that day is still to come.
I must say three final things. First is that the well worn NASB I mentioned at the top has been mostly replaced by several other bibles over the years, all of which are not well worn. And I have to say I was quite self-righteous about the worness of that bible years ago. I can unequivocally say that that bible does not represent a life not falling apart. And I have to add that the selectively underlined verses and the notes in the margins represent a somewhat different theology than I have now. Secondly, I believe reading the bible is a good thing, but not because it has any connection to one’s life holding together. Reading the bible is good because the bible is full of truth and seeking truth is something we should be about. I mean, Jesus knew his scriptures and we’re trying to be like him. Right? Of course, we should probably be reading our bibles in their original languages anyway (but not because it’s the “Christian” thing to do). And thirdly, I am fairly sure John MacArthur is a child of God. I cannot know for sure, but it is unlikely that he is not. I have disagreements with a lot of what he says, but I come directly from the tradition of Christianity that he exemplifies and mostly we stand on common ground (I think). I believe he is very likely a good man, sincere in what he says, and probably better than I on many levels. I may have completely missed his point of his quote, but I don’t think I have missed how it is generally understood by most Christians. And I do not write this post to pick on him, rather to call into question some common perspectives that have become deeply ingrained within much of Christian thought today, and yet I believe are antithetical to the gospel.