One of the areas of focus in the new ministry I’m getting off the ground – Train Yourself Ministry – is the area of biblical literacy. It’s my conviction that the knowledge and practice of the Word of God is simply the best foundation on which a person can build his or her life.
For centuries, knowledge of the Bible penetrated culture. It informed the worldview of Western Civilization’s greatest orators and leaders, inspired the artistry of the greatest writers and composers, and guided the moral thinking of average families and citizens. From Shakespeare to Dickens, from Washington to Lincoln, the Bible breathed through their work and words.
However today biblical illiteracy is sweeping the culture, and sadly the Church.
It’s with this thought in mind that I think of the recent teaching by Andy Stanley, one of America’s most influential preachers, where he encouraged his listeners to “unhitch themselves” from the Old Testament, i.e. don’t bother with it, because it’s too confusing, complicated and contradictory to wade through, and it will only hinder your faith in Christ.
The Old Testament is indeed a challenging book to read at times. 3,000 year old books are like that. (But the New Testament isn’t a leisurely stroll through the park either.) But rather than summon his people to step up their game, and develop the skills and discipline needed to understand its message, Stanley with a shrug just says, “Forget about it.” He’s the dairy farmer who denies his people milk because the technique of cow-milking is just too bothersome to learn.
For centuries, knowledge of the Bible informed the worldview of Western Civilization’s greatest orators and leaders, and inspired the artistry of the greatest writers and composers.
Compared to Stanley’s view of the Bible, I think of a man like Jordan Peterson. Peterson is a University of Toronto psychology professor who dared to stick a spoke in the wheel of his country’s progressive sexual politics when he defied a new law passed last year in Canada to compel people to use “preferred pronouns” for those who identify as part of the LGBTQ community.
Peterson has become an overnight conservative “rock star”, thanks to a strategic use of the Internet to make available a massive library of his lectures and interviews. With the release of a monster, best-selling book, Peterson has embarked on an international speaking tour where he commands ticket prices at Rolling Stone levels.
Why mention him in this context?
Because last fall in all his “spare time”, Peterson offered a breath-taking 15-part lecture series where he walked through the stories in the book of Genesis and examined them through his training as a psychologist.
Each lecture is 2 ½ hours (!) where he takes his listeners verse by verse (in expository fashion) through Genesis, pausing along the way to offer commentary from his own experience and training, largely without notes, often framing thoughts on the fly, in a manner that is absolutely compelling, as if one were listening to Socrates or Seneca or one of the great philosophers of old.
What’s astonishing about these lectures, from the vantage point of a Christian listener, is the utter seriousness, bordering on reverence and awe, with which this non-Christian psychologist (or at least a man of closely guarded faith) speaks of the Bible and its words.
I encourage you to have a listen to his ninth lecture on the Call of Abraham (available on Youtube) as a sample of his approach.
He demonstrates humility before the material. He shares how he originally believed that the God of the Old Testament was different (stern and warlike) than the God of the New Testament (loving and merciful), until a friend showed him that this belief was flawed. God’s mercy is imbedded in the very Abrahamic stories, because Abraham was as far from perfect as could be, yet God was with him.
Compare this to Stanley who adheres to the misguided belief (built on an ancient heresy called Marcionism) that the two testaments are essentially incompatible with each other.
In a part of his lecture where he wrestles with the meaning of a verse that says “Noah was perfect in his generation” Peterson admits, “I didn’t understand this at first.” What he said next absolutely floored me (and brought a smile to my face.) Rather than assume the problem was with the text, he assumed the problem was with him. Not understanding the verse “just meant I was stupid, and I had to figure it out”. Which led him to consult a number of commentaries written by old and venerable scholars to find answers. I doubt very much that Stanley has offered that counsel to his listeners.
With the wit of a story-teller and the depth of a scholar, Peterson then steps verse-by-verse through the story of Abraham’s journey into the Promised Land and unpacks these ancient words, making them gripping and understandable for his audience, like the finest of preachers.
Using Abraham’s example as his template, he tells his listeners to “Pick up the heaviest thing you can!” urging them not to shy away from responsibility. “Be an overwhelming force for good!” he says. Noting the presence of hardship and suffering in the story, he says, “It’s self-evident that the world is a place of suffering and there are things to be done about that. It’s self-evident that we are flawed and there are things to be done about that.”
“Pick up the heaviest thing you can!…Be an overwhelming force for good!” ~ Jordan Peterson
It’s no accident that young men in particular are responding in droves to Peterson’s message. But what’s astonishing is that his message – nearly 40 hours of material in these lectures – were all drawn from just one book of the Old Testament.
This complicated, antiquated book which is essentially useless for a follower of Christ. Or so says Andy Stanley.
Maybe that says something about American preaching today, that God has to turn to a 55-year-old university psychologist to remind us of the power we have in our hands when we’re holding a Bible.