July 23, 2017
Why Doesn’t the Bible Speak to Me?
I am an Atheist and encountered you through listening to debates between atheists and believers. I have been reading your Q and A's for a while, and have a question. The question is about what constitutes hearing God's message? I, growing up in the Western tradition, heard many of the stories from the bible, and about Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross. I have even read hefty junks of the bible. So on one level I don't say I haven't heard God's message. But when I contrast my experience of encountering the stories of the bible with those of a sincere Christian I think maybe I haven't actually heard it?
I don't see, or perhaps feel, anything like 'the divine' in the words on the pages of the bible. I don't much see or feel that about anything at all. Am I reading the bible incorrectly, or not hearing sincerely delivered sermons correctly?
This question has arisen because my son, whom has been going to a local church for play groups, has been offered baptism. And some voices in my circle of friends and family have suggested I should not deprive him of anything. I am just not sure what I am depriving him of exactly? It is not that I find the stories in the bible bad or uninteresting. I guess I just find them mundane; that is to say I see no reason to expose him to the bibles stories over Tolkien's, or C.S. Lewis's (I am aware both men were Christian) or stories from other interesting mythologies.
Now intellectually am I aware of the bible's importance to the Western canon of theology and philosophy. But it doesn't move me emotionally; I cannot say why exactly. Especially as when I was younger I would have called myself a Christian.
The theological question here is "Does hearing the mere words constitute hearing the message?" I have heard the words, and can see how they move you and others (I am not devoid of empathy), but those same words do no such thing for me.
The practical issue is exposing my children to Christianity, when I don't really "hear" the message? Obviously I cannot pretend that I will have no influence on my Children, but neither my partner or I are religious. She is more apathetic (and dismissively agnostic) about this issue, whereas with my philosophical inclinations apathy doesn't sit well.
Before I address your questions, Marc, let me say how much I admire you for your willingness to allow your son to follow, if he desires, religious convictions different than your own and not to forbid him. What you would be “depriving him of exactly,” should you forbid him to follow the path of Christian discipleship, is freedom of conscience and freedom of religious expression, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, are pretty fundamental rights.
In so saying, I’m not advocating that he pursue baptism at this time. From your description of his church activities as “play groups” I gather that your son is a fairly young boy, who may not understand the significance of the rite of baptism (identification with Christ in his death and resurrection, according to Romans 6). So what I suggest is that you sit down with him alone and have a heart-to-heart father-son conversation. Say, “I hear that you’re thinking of getting baptized at the church.” If he says he is, then ask in a non-challenging tone, “Why do you want to do that?” Find out if he’s doing it just because that’s what’s expected or what all the other children are doing, and he doesn’t want to be left out. Ask him what he believes about God and Jesus. Make sure he understands what baptism means. If you discover that he’s just going through the motions, then you might say something like, “I’d like you to wait a while longer before you take this step. I don’t think you’ve really thought it through enough yet.” But if he is in earnest, then you should support him and attend the event yourself. You don’t need to “‘hear’ the message” yourself in order to support one of your children who does.
And don’t draw an artificial dichotomy between reading the Bible to your children “over” Tolkien and Lewis. Read them both! With our children, after supper every evening I’d sit down with them on the couch and read a story from The Picture Bible (a comic book Bible published by Cook which is very engaging), and then I’d read to them from Lewis or 1001 Arabian Nights or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, etc. We all so enjoyed those story times!
As to your questions, hearing God’s message is certainly not the same as just reading the words.
Your reaction to Scripture sounds typical to me of a spiritually unregenerate person, alienated from God and dead in sins. In order for you to appreciate Scripture fully, you need to come to know the author of Scripture, Who will illumine His Word as you read it.
Now I don’t mean to imply that God does not speak through Scripture to the unbeliever’s heart, convicting him of wrongdoing and drawing him to faith in Christ. If you come to the Bible with a heart-attitude of humility, openness, and contrition, God will speak to you through it. Obviously, this implies a sort of existential, felt need on your part that drives you to Scripture. You need to reflect on your own moral failures and need of moral cleansing and renewal. This will help you to hear the message of the Gospel.
I also can’t help but wonder what parts of the Bible you’re reading. No doubt some parts of it (like Leviticus) are pretty boring for non-specialists, but on the other hand I don’t know how anyone can describe the four Gospels as “mundane!” I remember the first time I read the Gospels as a non-Christian. I was absolutely riveted by the story of Jesus. He is universally recognized as one of the most fascinating personages in history, and his life is full of drama. Maybe you should focus your reading on the Gospels.
I’d also recommend to you what I recommend to Christians for whom the Bible has become humdrum though familiarity: quit reading the Bible and start studying the Bible. The average person has no idea of the depths of riches that are buried just below the surface in Scripture that can be excavated though serious Bible study. (I have found of late that even Leviticus is fascinating!) So as you read, say, Mark’s Gospel, get a copy of William Lane’s Commentary on the Gospel of Mark and read his comment on the paragraph you’re reading in the Gospels. It will help to make it come alive.
Finally, what’s important for you at this time, Marc, is not to have an emotional experience but to come to believe the truth of the Gospels. However cut-and-dried the facts may appear, if they are, indeed, the facts, then you need to turn and believe in Jesus as your Savior and Lord. Emotional experience will come later. So why not get some books like The Case for Christ or Jesus under Fire to challenge your thinking about the truth of Christianity?