Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Cue Carly Simon
That analogy is something we’ve probably all experienced to some extent in our own lives: reading a poem, seemingly at random, we find the words written there aptly suited to our own situation. Many’s the intro-to-English-literature college student who, while pining away over a classmate, found this or that love poem far too apropos. We feel, almost instinctively, that this line, or this verse, “is about me.” We know, of course, that Vindicianus is right—that it is merely by chance that the words fit us; that they were likely written about a situation completely different than our own.In my elder and curmudgeonly years I have come to conclude that the ubiquitous Bible study question, "What does that mean to you?" has done far more harm than good. It is meant to ask someone to re-express what a passage is saying in their own words - to grapple with the ideas and concepts sufficiently to be able to restate them. But over the decades of this questions ubiquity I think it has come to teach people that the Bible was written for them and is in fact about them.
And yet we still can’t help but read ourselves into the text from time to time. It seems to me that some of this might be attributable to our desire to examine our own lives and beliefs (and test out other potential lives and beliefs) through literature; we take Bunyan’s advice and lay our head and heart together with the book. We know it’s not about us literally; and yet we believe, innately, that it has the capacity to become “about us.”
While this is a valid and important way of reading the Psalms, it should not become the sole way we read them—something Jonathan Kraemer discusses in his article “Praying the Psalms with the Body of Christ.” After all, while this or that Psalm may seem to fit how we’re feeling on any given day, there are many more which will not. What good is it then to read “Psalms that have us lamenting when we feel like praising; and praising when we feel like lamenting?”
Kraemer explains that the answer comes in remembering that the Psalms are not simply a prayer book for individuals; they are rather the prayers of the entire Church. “As wonderful as it is to have the Psalms that express in words what we feel so deeply,” he writes, “there are also great blessings that come from praying Psalms that do not fit the way we feel, when they seem like someone else’s prayer.” Because in fact, that’s what they are: “the prayers of the body of Christ”—the whole body, and not just me.
It's not, it is about God. Of course it talks about God's people, but it does so when discussing how God works amongst them - it's about God's actions, not theirs. It is hubris to think the Bible is about us.
I really hate the Carly Simon song, it makes my ears bleed, but there is something deeply insightful about human nature in its lyrics. We are just vain enough to think the Bible is about us. Maybe we need to fight that.