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If You Don't Have Jeremiah 29:11 Printed On Something, Are You Even a Christian?
Why coffee mug verses exist and how they expose our me-centered hermeneutic
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“I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord. “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
If you’ve never owned a coffee mug, journal, home accessory, Bible cover, key chain, or t-shirt with Jeremiah 29:11 printed on it, can you even call yourself a Christian? I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure if you read the fine print, owning Jeremiah 29:11 merch is a requirement for salvation. I don’t mean to brag, but I’ve had a coffee mug, multiple journals, AND home décor with this beloved verse on it. I’m pretty sure that makes me some kind of super-Christian.
I’m kidding, obviously. But anyone who has spent time in the American church knows what a big deal Jeremiah 29:11 is. A close runner-up is Romans 8:28: “All things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And, of course, Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (THE perfect verse for athletic gear.) What all these Christian coffee mug verses have in common is their suitability for personal application. In other words, I can claim them as promises for me.
In the final chapter of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Richards and O’Brien highlight the deepest, hardest to recognize assumption that American Christians bring to the Bible – the assumption that I can and should apply each and every verse to myself. Here’s how they put it:
Western Christians, especially North American Christians, tend to read every scriptural promise, every blessing, as if it necessarily applies to us – to each of us and all of us individually. More to the point, we are confident that us always includes me specifically. And this may not be the case. . . This misreading of Scripture arises from combining our individualism with a more subtle, deeply hidden and deeply rooted aspect of our Western worldview: we still think the universe centers around us. The assumption is naïve; but worse, it influences the way we read the Bible. (193)
What makes this assumption so tricky is that it’s fueled by some really important truths – truths that we should all affirm. One of the most significant commitments of evangelical Christianity is that the Bible is for God’s people in every age, that it still speaks (present tense!) to us today. Because of this, it is good and right for us to take Scripture personally and apply it to our lives. As James 1:22 says, we ought to be doers, not just hearers of the word! We can’t “do” the word unless we think through how it applies to our own experiences. We also believe that the character of God is steadfast and unchanging. He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. So, we can reasonably conclude that he will deal with us as he dealt with his people in past generations. We take these truths a step further by assuming that promises he made with his people in the past continue to apply to his people in the present. And if they continue to apply to his people, it stands to reason that they apply individually to me.
That last statement – that’s where we go wrong. What most of us fail to realize is that the entire concept of a me-and-Jesus daily quiet time where I sit in a room alone and read my Bible until I am able to make a significant connection to my specific circumstances is relatively new. Richards and O’Brien explain:
The Christian church has always believed that the Scriptures are for us. But our historical location changes what that means. As Eugene Peterson has argued, the original process through which God worked with his people was through speaking-writing-reading aloud-listening. (It was a community/group experience.) Until the Reformation, people heard the Scriptures in church – and only in church. That meant the natural question when interpreting the Bible was, “What does this mean to us?” With the double-edged gift of Gutenberg’s printing press, the process is often reduced merely to writing-reading. Now we read the Bible alone in our homes. This allows a communal process to become individualized. . . Now instead of asking, “What does this mean to us?” our instinctive question is, “What does this mean to me?” The shift to individual, reader-centered interpretation was natural post-Gutenberg. But we must never lose sight of the implications of that shift. (197)
The authors do a fantastic job at setting the record straight about the correct meaning of verses like Jeremiah 29:11 and Romans 8:28. They also highlight the disastrous effects a me-centered reading of the Bible has had on the American church’s end times theology. Did you know that “rapture trauma” is a real thing in the psychology world? An entire generation of American Christians grew up terrified that they could suddenly be “left behind” to endure the worst suffering imaginable. What a needless form of spiritual trauma, ultimately rooted in sloppy hermeneutics. One of the common characteristics of Tim LaHaye-style garbage eschatology is the belief that America has a central role to play in God’s plan for the universe; that if we don’t get our act together and return to our “Christian roots” (insert false, revisionist history here) God will have to put his plans on hold. What an arrogant assumption; one that has no biblical support. But we were all raised to believe that America is God’s gift to the world. Many of us have stood in church sanctuaries pledging allegiance to the American flag as though it’s a central part of Christian worship. Why would we not import this America-centric assumption into our reading of prophetic and apocalyptic passages?
Here's the big problem with a me-centered reading of the Bible: it makes most of the Bible completely irrelevant. If all I’m after is some warm-fuzzy Bible buzz or nugget of personal application, entire books of the Bible need not ever be read. If I can’t draw a straight line from a passage to my lived experience, I’m just wasting my time. This, by the way, is why you’ve heard a thousand sermons and teachings on Ephesians 5 but probably zero on Leviticus 5, or any chapter of Leviticus for that matter. Marriage advice? Yeah, baby - sign me up! Old Testament sin offerings? Uh, no offense, but I think I’ll pass.
I’m convinced that Bible literacy isn’t suffering simply because Christians don’t read their Bibles. It’s suffering because Christians have been conditioned to only read the parts of their Bibles that instantly resonate and apply directly to them personally, which excludes a lot of important parts.
The last thing Richards and O’Brien would want is for us to stop trying to apply the Bible to our everyday lives. It is not a bad thing to take the Bible personally! But if we are going to read the Bible well and avoid twisting it’s meaning to suit our interests, we need to stay mindful of our natural bent toward jumping straight to personal application without ever considering what the passage meant to the original audience. We need to drill it into our brains that while the Bible was written for us, it was not originally written to us. We also need to stay mindful of the fact that the Bible is a “we” book, not a “me” book. Any time you see the word “you” in Scripture, assume it’s a collective you in the original language, or a “you all.” Ninety percent of the time, that’s the case. When you sit in a room by yourself and read your Bible, remind yourself that most Christians throughout church history never did that. They didn’t have their own Bible. They read or listened to the Bible being read in community with other believers, and they still managed to grow in their likeness to Jesus. Allow that realization to adjust your quiet time expectations. If you don’t have a regular quiet time, but you’re reading and studying the Bible with other Christians, you’re probably doing just fine. I wish someone had told me that earlier in my life. I love getting up in the morning and reading my Bible, but there have been seasons of motherhood where I just couldn’t do it and I felt so guilty. Now I know that guilt was a byproduct of modern American Christianity, not real Holy Spirit conviction. My final suggestion is to figure out a way to stay mindful of the global church. Whatever you can do to shake yourself free of the assumption that America plays some kind of special role in the plan of God, do it. Subscribe to publications or podcasts that expose you to stories of God’s work around the world.
Bottom line, we must always allow the text of Scripture to pursue its own agenda, not force it to pursue ours. We have to resist the urge to overinterpret a passage in order to derive the angle or personal relevance we’re seeking. Trying to arrive at personal application without carefully applying a sound hermeneutical method will lead us to misread Scripture every time. None of us can read the Bible through a perfectly clear hermeneutical lens. Our view is always going to be clouded by our own life experiences and historical location. But the more aware we are of our own presuppositions, the more we’ll be able to loosen our grip on them and the closer we’ll get to an accurate interpretation of the text. Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes is all about cultivating this self-awareness and I hope you’ve gotten as much out of our journey through this book as I have.
Working through a book is really helpful for me. That way I’m not pulling random ideas out of the air. I was pretty set on working through Tremper Longman’s How to Read Genesis, but John Walton just released a new book on interpreting the Old Testament that has made my heart go pitter-patter. So, I’m not quite sure yet. I’ll let you know next week.
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