My family and I went to see The Greatest Showman a few weeks back. I’ve always loved musicals, for the most part, and so many of my friends who had seen the movie recommended it. It was an energy packed, feel good movie complete with a moral lesson. It’s fair to say I loved it. When I got home I began to watch featurettes the production company was putting up on YouTube and Facebook. There were some feel good stories there too and it only heightened my appreciation for the film. So I came home and started to blog about it wanting to share what I thought was a pretty powerful message- at least for me.
Hoping to offer a bit if factual background about the historical Barnum I went online and began to do a bit of research. I felt it would be fair to address some of the whispers of the dark side of Barnum before delving into the parts of the movie I liked. It wasn’t long before I became bogged down in the many slimy actions of the circus man. The historical Barnum was a far cry from the Hollywood version. A little taken aback by what I found I began discussing it with friends. Some were surprised I wasn’t familiar with that side of him. One friend who grew up in Barnum’s hometown was confused by all the praise for a movie about a known scoundrel. They were shocked that I could know anything about him without knowing of his crooked ways. Having looked into it a little bit, I understand why they were surprised.
Prominent on the list of atrocities was the story of Joice Heth. Heth, a slave woman Barnum purchased was completely blind and almost completely paralyzed. Barnum paraded her about telling the story that she was 161 years old and was nurse to President George Washington. When she died, Barnum seized the opportunity to charge 50 cents to view her autopsy. As it turned out, the autopsy proved she was no more than 80 years old. (You can use Google to find out more. Here, let me help.) Leaving out the grossness, the movie portrays Barnum as a hero for his circus act performers. But that wasn’t the whole story. Most of the time, the whole story is important. And leaving out parts of the story is a problem I’ve encountered before.
It didn’t take me long- it never does- to start thinking about the conundrum from a Christian theological standpoint. We have made a habit of leaving challenging little details out of our Bible stories. We sanitize them to the point where we can feel good telling them. Or, we take parts of the Bible out of context to make us feel better about our life and our struggles. Over the next three posts, I’d like to discuss three ways we do this.
First: We Freely Associate
In the evangelical world in which I grew up there was a great amount of emphasis on what we call “personal devotions”. This is the practice of spending time reading the Bible, praying, and perhaps meditating. One would do their personal devotions alone. If people were like me they spent this time reading the Bible trying to understand what the Divine wanted to tell them. Like others, I was constantly trying to figure out how what I was reading applied to my life. In doing this, we can freely associate with the text we are reading. That is, we look for something in the text that jumps out at us as meaningful for our life. (Please don’t confuse this with free-association, which seems similar, but is different from a technical standpoint. If you’re interested, here is a link to help understand.)
Finding ways to associate with Biblical truth is ok. But outside of the contextual meaning for the first recipients of the message can confuse the message at best, and totally hijack it at worst. When we hijack the message sell the Bible short and take some of the life away from the story we are reading. Let me show you one example of how this practice can undermine how we understand the Bible. I’ll start with examining half of Christianity’s “life verse”.
For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.”
It certainly is comforting in the midst of life’s hardships to believe God has a plan for me and not to harm me. That I have hope and a future. That may be true. If we read this verse while free-associating, we can believe the “you” in the verse is referring to “me”. It is not. We can believe the “plans” in the verse, as well as the “hope and future” are referring to my circumstances. But they’re not. The message was specific in who it was sent to. The people receiving the message had specific reasons for needing to hear it. To understand the context, we need to look at Jeremiah 29:10-14:
This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. … I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.” (New International Version)
We need to understand this scripture in a proper manner before we can bring suitable meaning to our lives. To do this, we need to read it well. Who is “you” in the passage? Well, it isn’t me. It isn’t you either. It wasn’t even written to a him or a her. The message was to them.
The message of Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t a personal one.
To understand the verse properly we must understand the “you” here to be plural. It was to a group of people. Jeremiah sent this message from God to the nation of Judah. There were people in this nation who were experiencing exile. They were taken from their home by force, forced to the land of Babylon, and then forced to live there. So we might be able to understand why God’s chosen people may have been frustrated, confused, and without hope. Jeremiah was bringing good news for them- God was going to save them from Babylon.
But there was also news which might have been received as bad news, or at least disappointing news. God wasn’t going to rescue them until 70 years had passed. Think about it. All the people hearing the news would be quite old or dead before the exile ended. How’s that for hope and comfort? Well, I suppose it is a matter of perspective.
If you are looking for personal reassurance about being released from a personal struggle, Jeremiah 29:10-14 shouldn’t be where you look. It is part of a story about God’s relationship with a nation. But if you are part of a group of people suffering through confusing times, you can read this story, see how God cared for Judah, and have hope that those who come behind you will experience better times. This perspective is much different than how we so often see the verse used. The correct perspective makes all the difference. And when we are looking at it from the right perspective, it kind of makes using this scripture as a “life verse” or some sort of scriptural mantra really doesn’t make any sense. That is unless you are primarily concerned with God’s relationship with your community now and forever. That’s a good -and I’d argue the right- perspective to have.
We’re not alone with our habit of freely associating what we want to hear in what we’re reading or listening to. We do it as patriotic Americans too. I remember riding to a concert as a teenager “singing” Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA at the top of my lungs. Who isn’t proud of the fact that they were born in the USA, right? Because I took that attitude to how I listened to the song, I had no idea Springsteen’s song was a satirical work to call attention to how terribly Vietnam Veterans were treated when they returned from Vietnam. Yeah, no kidding. Check it out.
I think Springsteen’s problem was the title of the song implied the song was simply about being born in the USA. Couple this with the music and our desire to love where we live and you miss the point. I imagine The Boss actually likes living in the USA. But this particular song wasn’t trying to make that point. Just like God may have a hope and plan for your future, but that’s not what Jeremiah was speaking to. He was speaking to a nation of people who needed to understand the picture was still in focus, and it wasn’t necessarily about them. Their gut check required a perspective check.
In my next post, I’ll discuss someone who knew something about a skewed perspective- the apostle Paul. We have made a habit of twisting some of his words too. Stay tuned…
(For the second installment in the series, click here.)