Why is it that when we read the Bible, we seem to look at it as though we’re reading a textbook? I don’t just mean all the things that sound irrelevant or even completely dull (long lists of people who “begat” other people, anyone?). I mean that all we ever do is view it as some sort of how-to manual, as if we’re trying to fix the kitchen sink or learn to speak unnaturally formal French or put together a piece of cheap furniture.
There are some really wild stories in the Bible. What’s in there rivals some of the greatest action films and puts love stories to shame. Yet we read even those tales in terms of what we can get out of it.
This week, the devotion I follow has been using the text of 1 Kings 18. If you’re not familiar with that story, I suggest you read it. Here’s a convenient link. This has to be one of the best Bible stories, hands down. Evil king? Check. Badass prophet of G-d? Check. Showdown with a bunch of false prophets? Check. Awesome power of G-d demonstrated? Yup, that too. I mean, it does not get any better. Seriously, I can just imagine the field day the special effects techs could have with this one in film version.
Anyway, back to the subject at hand. After Elijah completely makes fun of the Prophets of Baal, he tells them to call on Baal to ignite their altar. Their method of summoning their god is to beat themselves and cut themselves in order to draw attention to themselves. When I read the devotion on that Scripture, I was about six different kinds of horrified by the direction the writer took.
I mean, you’d think that there would be some mention of idolatry, maybe a comparison to the ways we hold up false gods today, such as money or power. Maybe some parallel about the ways in which we try to draw attention to ourselves in our idolatry. Heck, I could even have seen something about the ways in which we may be practicing subtle idolatry. But, sadly, that’s not the way the devotion writer saw this text.
That particular day, the writer decided to take it in a very strange direction. I think it may be the most bizarre literal use of Scripture I’ve ever seen. The writer used this Scripture to berate teenagers who cut/self-harm. Yeah, no kidding.
Instead of a fantastic story of G-d’s power, the false nature of idolatry, and the courage to stand up for what you believe in, this person chose to use Scripture to condemn and wound. The writer clearly has no experience with actual teenagers (or, at least, teenagers with serious things in their lives). He essentially left it that teens who cut are just attention-seeking. That would have been bad enough, but there were several people who posted sickening replies to the devotion. Among them were the parent who tried to “help” her son by using that Scripture to remind him of the sinful, selfish nature of his self-harm and the healthcare worker who apparently believes mental illness is a “cry for attention.” It reminded me of a conversation I had with a fellow nursing student about 15 years ago. She said she didn’t like working with kids who have eating disorders. She said she wanted to go to them with a candy bar, shove it in their faces, and say, “Eat this!” Wow, so much heartfelt empathy there.
The above is a classic example of finding Scriptures and making them conform to our beliefs. It reduces the Bible to nothing more than a rulebook, wherein every story has a neat, snappy moral lesson and every human behavior has a corresponding Bible verse. There is no love or compassion in showing a troubled, desperate adolescent a Scripture about idolatry and saying, “See this? G-d’s gonna strike you dead for your false way of getting His attention.” There is no grace in crushing people’s spirits with condescending pseudo-understanding.
The whole thing came across as though the devotion writer didn’t actually read or study the story, didn’t try to understand the historical context, and didn’t even see the truly great things right before his eyes. He was too wrapped up in his own “Aha! This sounds like something I read on a Fundamentalist web site once!” moment to notice his superior tone.
We need to be very careful that our reading of Scripture doesn’t lead us away from extending grace, mercy, and compassion for others.