• Beware “Christian” Authors

Nov
19
Beware “Christian” Authors

Chris Thayer is the Director of Discipleship at Good Shepherd Church in Charlotte, NC where he oversees adult life groups and Biblical education. The following is a guest post here in the Dojo that I wholeheartedly agree with!

-JM

 

Walk into any Christian bookstore in the United States and you’ll find books on almost any topic you’d like to study. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t worth reading. What’s scarier though, is that many of them teach people to think and study the Bible improperly.

I don’t think the authors of most of these books and curricula are intentionally malicious. In fact many of them arrive at helpful conclusions for people’s lives. But this is only one side of the coin. When we evaluate a teaching we should look at it on two fronts: 1.) What is the conclusion the author comes to? Is the result of their teaching healthy, helpful, and in agreement with the reality of who God is and who He wants us to be? 2.) How is their argument – their line of reasoning? Is it clear? Does it flow out of a proper reading and understanding of Scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives?

Most of the time people evaluate Christian books and teaching on the first criteria alone and completely ignore the second. We tend to judge the integrity of a book, teaching, or sermon based on its conclusion alone. If the conclusion is something we believe to be helpful and Biblical, then we will often accept the author’s conclusion and uncritically swallow the argument with it. This is incredibly dangerous.

Many books meet the first criteria easily: the author’s conclusions are helpful and in line with what scripture teaches. However, many times their arguments are a complete atrocity. Scripture is taken out of context. They make assertions about the Greek or Hebrew texts that are inaccurate. They twist the words of verses from the Bible to make it say what they want it to say rather than what it actually says. They are so focused on the conclusion of their argument that they let it blind their reading and interpretation of scripture. Their conclusions are good; their arguments are anything but.

Let me share an example: A book I just read quotes Proverbs 23:7 as saying “As he thinketh in his heart, so is he” (KJV). The author then uses this verse as a proof text from the Bible that what you dwell on is what you will become. The author of the book states: “We become what we think. Our thought life – not our circumstances – determines whether we are content.” Now, I use this example because the author’s conclusion is fairly good. It’s helpful. It tends to be true: What you dwell on mentally is how you act outwardly. However their argument, in this case their interpretation of this passage of Scripture, is not good. If you read the context from which the author has ripped this proverb, you’ll see what I mean. The point of this Proverb is not—as the author of this book claims—a truism for all people that what we dwell on is what we will become (however true this may be). Here’s all of Proverbs 23:7 AND its surrounding context so you can see:

4 Do not weary yourself to gain wealth,
Cease from your consideration of it.
5 When you set your eyes on it, it is gone.
For wealth certainly makes itself wings
Like an eagle that flies toward the heavens.

6 Do not eat the bread of a selfish man,
Or desire his delicacies;
7 For as he thinks within himself, so he is.
He says to you, “Eat and drink!”
But his heart is not with you.
8 You will vomit up the morsel you have eaten,
And waste your compliments.[1]

 

The point of this section of Proverbs is to teach the reader not to be zealous for wealth – to not even take the food of somebody who’s tightfisted about wealth because even though he might appear generous, in reality he’s not. The time you spend with him will be wasted – the food of his you eat will be vomited back up. This is not a Proverb that teaches a truism for all people that what you dwell on is what you will become. If this translation is accurate, the verse’s intention is to say that the selfish man in the example is actually different from what his outward actions portray. In other words, the author of the book I’m referring to subtly took a verse from this proverb out of context, made those words say something that they don’t, and passed it off as a teaching from this book of the Bible.

Now, at this point, maybe you’re thinking to yourself “You’re splitting hairs.[2] What difference does it really make so long as their conclusions are good? It’s only a small leap from this proverb to teach people not to dwell on negative things. Besides, isn’t the conclusion the goal anyway? Does it really matter how we get there? The author captured a reality about life that is helpful for people even if they took the words of that Proverb slightly out of context.”

Other than the problems that come with such pragmatism – let me challenge the assumption that only the conclusion matters. Let me ask the more important question: How is the author of this book teaching people to read the Bible? They’re teaching them that taking a verse out of context to fit what they want to say is okay. It’s okay to read one verse, ignore what surrounds it, and twist it to say something that sounds (and may even be) true and good. The author is giving the reader permission to to take a verse out of context in order to say whatever they want, as long as the conclusion sounds right. They’ve taught them to let their conclusions drive their argument rather than allowing scripture to inform their conclusions. In other words, they’ve taught them the basics on how to create their very own cult. This is incredibly dangerous and an absolute mishandling of the calling that every teacher of the Bible has—that of teaching people how to read and interpret the Bible correctly.

If this were something that only happened once in a while, I wouldn’t be nearly as concerned about it as I am. However the more I read, the more I see that it is an epidemic within popular Christian writing that needs to be rooted out. It is a consistently used technique that takes advantage of sincere Christians.

Christians have a desire to understand God correctly. Yet the Bible can be an incredibly confusing book. Understanding how to live out our relationship with God is a difficult task. So we want help. We want people to help us understand God, the Bible, and to help us grow in our relationship with Him. So we buy curriculum, we read books, we visit blogs. Unfortunately most of what we’re consuming has zero nutritional value. We’re getting fat on cake and doughnuts that we’ve been told is a healthy and nutritious meal. We’re being told we’re reading Biblical teaching when in reality we’re reading little more than a self-help book with some Jesus sprinkled in it so that we’ll buy it and feel good about reading “Christian teaching.”

So here are a few things to watch out for as you read your next Christian book, blog, or curriculum:

1.)    If the author says “in the Greek it says…” or “in the Hebrew this word really means…” Look it up or ask somebody who you know has studied the languages of the Bible. Authors will frequently appeal to the original language (Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic) of the Bible to buttress their argument and completely misuse an elementary understanding of the language. For example, just like in English, Greek and Hebrew words can have multiple meanings. In English, the word ‘tip’ can mean both to turn something over and the end (usually pointed) of an object. Just because I say the word ‘tip’ does not mean that I have both meanings in mind. The context of what I’m saying informs the listener or reader to understand which use I intend. Frequently Christian authors say that a Greek or Hebrew word not only means “such and such” but that it can also mean “such and such” and draw a conclusion based on that second meaning when the Biblical writer in no way intended that second meaning to be understood. They know enough about Greek or Hebrew to know that words can carry multiple meanings, but they don’t understand that context drives what meaning we should understand the author as intending.

2.)    If the author frequently uses multiple translations, BEWARE. I’ve found that when authors bounce from one translation to another, it’s because one translation makes their point better than another translation does. In other-words, they’re finding a translation that is just loose enough to fit the meaning they want it to have. Frequently the translations refer to when they do this are either the Amplified Bible or very loose translations/paraphrases (such as The Message or The Living Bible), and almost always taken out of context.

3.)    When the author quotes a verse from the Bible: look it up and read the surrounding chapter. Better yet: read the entire book. Authors frequently take a verse completely out of context to make the Bible say something that it’s not at all saying. [For a hypothetical example, imagine there is a book of the Bible named Shepherd. And in Shepherd 1:2 it reads “Don’t eat your vegetables.” I could quote this verse as grounds for instructing people that to eat vegetables is against the teaching of the Bible. However, if you were to go back and read it and see that Shepherd 1:1 says: “If anybody ever tells you:” and Shepherd 1:3 says: “Don’t listen to them.” We see that it has a completely different meaning! Unfortunately, this kind of lack of context is endemic to many popular Christian teachers and preachers.]

 To all the Christian writers, teachers, and speakers who may read this: Please have the integrity to not take advantage of Christians and make something sound Biblical when it’s really not. If you’re writing a self-help book, just label it as such. Don’t sprinkle Bible verses throughout it to goad Christians into buying it thinking they’re getting teaching about the Bible. I’m sure it’s unintended, but the poor arguments you are claiming to have come from the Bible have widespread consequences—consequences you might not have realized, but ones that according to James 3:1 you are responsible for.

 

Chris Thayer

 

[1] This is taken from the NASB translation of the Bible. You will also notice that due to translational difficulty with this verse, other respected translations such as the NIV and the ESV have altered the wording especially of verse 7 to make the reading more clear, a clarity which removes the referred to author’s improper use of this verse all the more clearly.
[2] A little nerd humor here if I may: One of the possible translations of Proverbs 23:7 is rather than saying “As he thinks in his heart so he is” it says: “for it’s like a hair in the throat.” You can find the argument for this translation (which I personally find compelling and to make a lot more sense of the verse in its context) in Ronald E. Murphy’s Word Biblical Commentary, Proverbs. Volume 22.
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