Reflecting Upon Scripture

Shane Rosenthal
Wednesday, September 1st 2010
Sep/Oct 2010

In their widely acclaimed book The Narcissism Epidemic, authors Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell document the slow and steady growth of narcissistic attitudes, behaviors, and assumptions in various aspects of American life and culture. Reality TV both encourages and normalizes self-centered behavior. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook encour-age us to post pictures and updates about our minute-by-minute activities no matter how trivial, and child-centered schools reward kids merely for exerting effort, even if the actual work is substandard. And in the midst of all this, mega-best-selling books regularly flatter us with words such as, "You are the most powerful magnet in the Universe!" (1)

Unfortunately our churches have not been immune to this cultural virus, for according to Twenge and Campbell, American religion–which used to challenge narcissistic attitudes and behaviors–is now in many respects part of the problem. In today's religious climate where churches compete for adherents as fast-food franchises do for customers, many religious groups simply "give people what they want. Because reducing narcissism is not always pleasant, most people aren't going to attend churches that demand humility." (2) The Narcissism Epidemic also includes an interesting account of a visit by one of the authors to a Southern California mega-church featuring numerous gourmet coffee huts, a Dave Mathews-like praise band, and a motivational speaker who told "a fantastic story with a personal life message." According to Twenge and Campbell, "You could watch the service from inside the stadium, from just outside, or in a coffee shop/bookstore on a flat-screen TV." But in the end, they conclude that the service "demanded nothing." It was just "really entertaining." The reason this megachurch was attractive to outsiders, they argue, was due to the fact that it had adapted to "today's self-oriented culture." (3)

It's interesting to me how closely this parallels the world of television programming as described by Neil Postman in his widely acclaimed book Amusing Ourselves to Death. For in the effort to compete for an increasing number of viewers, networks simplify everything and demand nothing. According to Postman, "Perplexity is a superhighway to low ratings. This means that there must be nothing that has to be remembered, studied, applied, or worst of all, endured. It is assumed that any information, story or idea can be made immediately accessible, since the contentment, not the growth of the learner is paramount….Television teaching always takes the form of story-telling, conducted through dynamic images and supported by music." (4) But doesn't that sound curiously like the visit to the megachurch as described by Twenge and Campbell? Is it possible that in our desire to reach out to people in new, relevant, and contemporary ways, we have functionally turned our churches into television shows? As interesting as that may be to think about, I believe there is an even more important question to ask: How have all these cultural trends affected the way we read and interact with Scripture?

The Spectrum of Sheilaism

In the 1985 book Habits of the Heart, sociologist Robert Bellah and his colleagues traced the outlines of a new kind of American spirituality that was taking root. In particular, they interviewed a young nurse by the name of Sheila Larson who described her faith as "Sheilaism." "I am not a religious fanatic. I can't remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice." (5) According to the authors, "This suggests the logical possibility of over 220 million American religions, one for each one of us." When asked to define her faith Sheila said, "It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other." (6) In his book Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks accurately described this kind of religiosity as the "narcissism of the New Age movement," in which "free spirituality" easily and frequently morphs into a kind of "lazy spirituality." Brooks therefore argues that "the toppling of old authorities has not led to a glorious new dawn but instead to an alarming loss of faith in institutions and to spiritual confusion." (7)

But Sheilaism may not be only a good description of the religious and spiritual lives of New Age types. As he was lecturing in a seminar on the topic of his book Habits of the Heart, Bellah further elaborated:

The case of Sheila is not confined to people who haven't been to church in a long time. On the basis of our interviews, and a great deal of other data, I think we can say that many people sitting in the pews of Protestant and even Catholic churches are Sheilaists who feel that religion is essentially a private matter and that there is no particular constraint on them placed by the historic church, or even by the Bible and the tradition. (8)

The point is that it's easy to think of Sheilaism as something that's going on outside the church walls. But the reality of today's situation is that Sheilaism is alive and well in the beliefs and practices of America's regular church goers. In other words, what if we begin to think of Sheilaism more as a spectrum rather than an on/off switch? In this case, the question would not be whether a given person is a Christian or a Sheilaist, but rather, to what extent have Christians themselves been affected by Sheila's way of thinking?

The most important dogma of this "new and improved" version of Christianity–or "Sheil-ianity," as I call it–is Bellah's point that religion is an entirely private matter without objective constraints from the outside such as history, tradition, or even Holy Scripture. This is why most of the contemporary and relevant churches (or what some have recently referred to as "contemporvant churches") are not interested either in historic liturgies or traditional hymnody. And it's also why the Bible, more often than not, is interpreted in me-centered and even narcissistic ways.

In traditional Sheilaism, the Bible is never even opened because its adherents generally listen to their own inner voices for spiritual guidance. But in the hybrid of Sheil-ianity, the Bible is frequently used, albeit in nontraditional ways. Formerly, it was viewed as God's unfolding drama of redemption, but today it is thought of as life's instruction book, or as a guide to self-fulfillment and inner peace. Sheila Larson listened to her own little voice and came to the conclusion that we should all try to love ourselves and take care of each other. But what is amazing is the fact that practitioners of Sheil-ianity often come to this same exact conviction through their reading of the Bible. How is this possible?

Exegesis vs. Eisegesis

Arriving at the correct interpretation of a text is sometimes a difficult task, especially in the case of great books that challenge us to think and reason about abstract and difficult issues. Mortimer Adler–a tireless advocate of reading and profiting from great books–once observed that "the Word of God is obviously the most difficult writing men can read." (9) In fact, Peter came to a similar conclusion about Paul's writings when he admitted, "There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction" (2 Pet. 3:16). For us, much of the difficulty of proper biblical interpretation lies in the difference in time, language, and culture, so that the basic grammar of the text is in some cases difficult to discern. In other cases, though the grammar and syntax are self-evident, the idea being communicated is challenging–especially to people like us who are used to being bottle-fed by our educational, cultural, and ecclesial institutions, and as a result we are unable to digest solid food of any kind (Heb. 5:12-14). But in either case, the interpretation of Scripture is seldom an easy task, and those who do not put the required effort into getting the proper meaning out of the text (exegesis) often end up reading their own ideas into it (eisegesis).

In his classic book Principles of Biblical Interpretation, Louis Berkhof cautions his readers by saying that "the word of God originated in a historical way, and therefore, can be understood only in the light of history." (10) In other words, Paul's first letter to the Corinthians was not written to me and is not about me. Rather, it's a letter written by the apostle Paul to Christians in the ancient city of Corinth. As obvious as that idea may seem at first glance, it's actually the source of one of the biggest mistakes that Christians make today as they attempt to read and interact with Scripture. Berkhof goes on to say, "It is impossible to understand an author and to interpret his words correctly unless he is seen against the proper historical background." (11)

We actually do the very opposite. Not only do we fail to set the words of Moses, David, or Paul in their proper historical context, but we also work hard to transport these ancient writers to our own time and place so they appear to speak directly to our own present day issues. For example, I recently ran across the following introduction to the book of Ezra:

Who are you? I'm a sports fan. I'm the child of a politician. I'm a guitar player. I'm a teenager. I'm a CPA. I'm Asian. I'm Methodist. I'm in the top tax bracket. Sometimes we identify ourselves through our interests. Other times we identify ourselves according to age ethnic background or income. Sometimes we identify ourselves through our professions, or our professions of faith. So who are you anyway? That's the central question in the book of Ezra. (12)

You'll notice the writer does not focus our attention on Ezra, the ancient Israelites, or the historical circumstances regarding the Babylonian captivity and the return of the exiles to rebuild and restore Jerusalem. Rather, he focuses directly on the reader who is apparently not all that interested in those historical details but is obsessed with his own guitar playing. This is not the central question in the book of Ezra! What we actually have here is a good example of textual narcissism, the chief hermeneutic employed by the practitioners of Sheil-ianity.

Books employing this approach to Scripture often top the charts of The New York Times Best-sellers List, featuring titles such as Become a Better You, It's Your Time, or Maximize the Moment: God's Action Plan for Your Life; while books on central biblical themes such as law and gospel, justification, or the atonement not only fail to sell widely but are actually hard to find, even in Christian bookstores. In fact, in such places it's actually becoming difficult to find books about God. Think about it. When is the last time a serious book about the Trinity or the attributes of God (i.e., a book of theology) became a best-seller in Christian circles? The inescapable conclusion to all this is that contemporary Christians are frankly not all that interested in God. They may be interested in using God as a resource to fix their daily problems, but studying who God is and what he's done in history is a little too far removed from their own interests. What they are really interested in is themselves.

The only way out of this mess is for us to call it like it is. This is not Christianity, but Sheil-ianity. This is not a proper handling of God's Word, but is a fun, easy, and ear-tickling abuse of Scripture. Toward the end of his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul actually warned us about false teachers who used this sort of approach: "By smooth talk and flattery, they deceive the hearts of the naive" (16:18). This does not speak well of us, for if books and inspirational messages that flatter us are among the most popular in contemporary Christianity, then today's church must, by the logical force of necessity, be incredibly naive.

Berkhof recommends that we avoid the danger of transporting a biblical author "to the present day and making him speak the language of the twentieth century." Rather, the proper interpreter of Scripture should work hard to "transfer himself mentally into the first century A.D., and into Oriental conditions. He must place himself on the standpoint of the author, and seek to enter into his very soul, until he, as it were, lives his life and thinks his thoughts." Finally, Berkhof warns that if a Bible reader fails to do this "the danger exists, as McPheeters expresses it, that 'the voice he hears (will) be merely the echo of his own ideas.'" (13)

This advice, it seems to me, is the salve for the narcissistic soul. We need to confess that we have all used the Bible in inappropriate ways. We have all been influenced, more than we care to admit, by our own reflections bouncing off the pages of sacred Scripture. We have heard the echo of our own ideas in countless sermons and Bible studies. What we need is to be drawn away from ourselves, our interests, and our customs to a completely foreign world. We need to be regularly confronted with God and his grand rescue story as it slowly unfolds throughout the pages of biblical history. And we need to have this gospel story preached to us again and again so it becomes the central story that shapes everything else in our lives.


Earlier this year, I visited the campus of a large evangelical Bible college and conducted a poll of general Bible knowledge for a White Horse Inn "man-on-the-street" segment. This was a very small survey consisting only of twelve students, randomly selected. At the time we were about to record a series of programs on the book of Galatians, so I asked these twelve "modern disciples" whether they had ever read this particular book of the Bible, and if so, what they thought it was about. The results were disturbing. Though most students had read the book, only two out of the twelve were able to correctly outline its basic message.

When I asked many of the students to tell me why they thought they were unprepared to give an answer about the message of Galatians, I received the following responses: "Churches today don't go very deep"; "Churches need to have more in-depth Bible studies because a lot of the time it's pretty shallow"; "Churches need to spend more time teaching us how to read the Bible, and less on the little topical lessons on how to do life." All the students seemed to be saying the same thing. They had been raised in churches where the teaching was fun, dynamic, relevant and entertaining, and where the focus inevitably centered on "lessons for life," rather than on God and his grand story of redemption in Christ. "I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion," Neil Postman poignantly reflected. But he went on to say, "When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether." (14) (15) I am inclined to think that a good name for this altogether new kind of religion is "Sheil-ianity."

What this means for Christians is that we need a Copernican revolution in the way we approach and handle Scripture. It's not enough to read the Bible. If we read this book with ourselves at the center, we will end up only feeding our inherent narcissism. Though the self-centered approach may initially excite us and hold our interest, in the end it will leave us empty, biblically illiterate, and spiritually malnourished. We will be "always learning and never able to arrive at the knowledge of the truth" (2 Tim. 3:7).

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for their abuse of the Old Testament saying, "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life" (John 5:39a). How much more do we think he would scold those of our day who fail to focus on issues pertaining to eternal life and instead on having "Your Best Life Now!" The long and the short of it is that the Bible is not about you, your life, improving your marriage, managing your finances, growing kids God's way, or helping you to realize your full potential. Yes, the Bible does contain instructions concerning how Christians are to conduct themselves in light of the gospel, but admitting that the Bible contains these instructions is not the same as suggesting that the Bible is about these life lessons. Jesus himself told the Pharisees what the Scriptures were about when he said that these sacred texts "bear witness about me" (John 5:39b). Now here is something that deserves our reflection! n

1 [ Back ] Rhonda Byrne, The Secret (New York: Atria Books, 2007), 7.
2 [ Back ] Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell, The Narcissism Epidemic (New York: Free Press, 2009), 246.
3 [ Back ] Twenge and Campbell, 247-48.
4 [ Back ] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 2005), 148.
5 [ Back ] Robert Bellah et al., Habits of the Heart (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 221.
6 [ Back ] Bellah, 221.
7 [ Back ] David Brooks, Bobos in Paradise (New York: Touchstone, 2000), 227.
8 [ Back ] Robert Bellah, "Habits of the Heart: Implications for Religion" (a lecture given at St. Mark's Catholic Church, Isla Vista, California on 21 February 1986). This lecture is available online at Robert Bellah's website: 5.htm.
9 [ Back ] Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1940), 294.
10 [ Back ] Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1950), 113.
11 [ Back ] Berkhof, 114.
12 [ Back ] TNIV Audio Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005).
13 [ Back ] Berkhof, 115.
14 [ Back ] Postman, 121.
Wednesday, September 1st 2010

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology