"The Bible Tells Me So!"

Except when it doesn’t.

My eye caught a recent CNN blog post about President Obama putting on his preacher’s hat.  A few days’ back, President Obama said, in effect, that God doesn’t want us to eat free lunches, which clearly means that God endorses a particular provision of his jobs bill.

(As an open disclaimer, I’m generally an Obama supporter: generally, because I think he was elected on a far more progressive agenda than he’s been willing to live out, but I’m not in the mood to get all riled up about that, nor, one can argue, do I need to be fussing about that here.)

Supporter of Obama though I am, this claim ruffled my theological feathers.

What was the feeding of the 4- and 5,000 if not a free lunch? What is grace if not a gift of something undeserved?

And to boot, I was not alone in wondering whether it were at all even appropriate, let alone politically expedient, to publicly interject his (questionable) theological view into a bill that on paper, anyway, is a secular matter.

The linked piece above, though, showed that it only went from bad to worse.

Later in the day, journalists challenged Pres. Obama’s press secretary on just this thing.  An AP reporter posed this question to Jay Carney: ““Isn’t it a bit much to bring God into the jobs debate?”

Carney replied, “I believe that the phrase from the Bible is, ‘The Lord helps those who help themselves.’”

Except it’s not.

John Blake, the CNN blogger whose piece captured my eye, linked in it an earlier article he’d written entitled, “That’s not in the Bible.”

It’s a fascinating survey which not only lists a number of misappropriated texts, but reasons why passages which are not in the Bible find themselves stuck in their against their will anyway.

Somehow we find that if we can buttress our opinion by saying that “It’s in Scripture,” then the heavens will open and God’s light and love will shine down on us and we will be blessed now and forever more.

Or at least prove that God is on our side.

These little incidents, namely Pres. Obama’s claim that God expects us to work if we want something, and Mr. Carney’s assertion that he is backed up by God’s Word itself, raise some key points:

How many of us who point to the Bible have actually read it?

How many of us know of the contradictions and nuances and varied agendas and numerous contexts in Scripture?

How many of us know the Hebrew and the Greek, and enough Aramaic to order a pizza, to understand the numerous meanings of the words used in the original documents–in so far as we have them or can deduce what they are? For the Geeks in Earnest among you, take a look at this nifty site listing, get this, contonyms, words that themselves have opposite meanings.  Take ‘fast,’ which means both quick and unmoving (not to mention ‘not eating’), or ‘screen,’ which connotes both hiding and showing.

And here is another point, a point that I own is a bit of a personal one being that my vocation is as a trained and eager theologian.  It also happens to be a point which Mr. Blake raises while pointing his finger to brother Martin Luther:

While I’m all for accessibility of Scripture to the laity, while I’m all over families having private devotionals and conversations about God, while I cheer the gift of parental baptismal promises to teach the creeds and read the Bible, I also want to say:

There are those of us who are trained experts.

Use us!

If the only way that you know which doo-hickey goes in which hole on your VCR and then to your TV because somebody helpfully color-coded them red, white, and yellow, my guess is you call an electrician when your lights aren’t working.

If you know that your kid is coughing up a storm but you aren’t sure whether it’s whooping cough or a bad cold or that dime that he downed last week, I’m putting my dime down on you bringing him to the doctor.

If you have money, or don’t have money, but depend on money in one way or another, it’s awfully possible that you ring up a credit counselor or a financial planner, depending on your circumstances.

Why is it, then (not that this is a pet peeve of mine or anything), why is it then that people are so reluctant to use theologians in their midst to sort out their theological moorings, to double-check their beliefs, to ask questions about why and what if and could it be and is there another way of thinking about it?

The other day, I was on my brisk morning walk, and I happily pressed my new iPhone button to visit with Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant.

“Siri,” I said, teeth only mildly chattering, “what is the temperature in Sioux Falls, SD this very moment?”


“Why, thank you, Siri!” I replied.

And then, “she” “said,” “I live to serve!”

I laughed out loud.

But theologians live to help people with their questions.

If President Obama had rung up lowly OMG before he’d held that press conference, I might have had the chance to say, “Sir, I’m going to help you avoid a minor PR kerfuffle.  IF you say that God wants us to work, and a case can be made for that, then you also will need to spend some time reconciling that claim with the consistent call of in both the OT and the NT that we are a communal people and have a calling from God to empower those in need so that they can work.  And then we might want to spend some time thinking about the difference between a job and a vocation, and that it’s only the relatively rich who have the luxury of having a vocation, and maybe we can do something with that theologically, and the book of Acts–not to mention Amos!–might be helpful resources for you to think through this whole Occupy thing, and please, whatever else you do, don’t fall for that ‘God helps those who help themselves’ trap.  Jeepers, will you hear about that for days.”

But he didn’t, and many others don’t, which makes us theologians lonely and sigh a lot, because we live to serve…up helpful and interesting and relevant theological musings!

In fact, I’m sure I can find a verse from Scripture to make you believe that that’s true…here…give me just one second…..I’ll be with you in just a moment…..I think it’s in the OT, if my memory serves me….or maybe the NT….hold on……

  1. Jayme on November 8, 2011

    Fantastic post! So what do we do about helping people understand that such resources as ourselves are available?

  2. Kirsten Mebust on November 8, 2011

    Glad I missed the news you saw. It would have made me crazy in the same way for much the same reasons. Of course, I encounter both claims that something is in the Bible when it is not and claims that things in the Bible mean something they probably do not every teaching day in my classrooms. Among those things that people INSIST are in the Bible and CANNOT be found there is “Marriage is between one man and one woman.” It’s difficult even for theologians: for instance, the Bible contains both “no one will be justified by the works of the law” (Galatians2.16) and “…a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2.24). What do we do about this? Sometimes we choose; sometimes we integrate; sometimes we remain mysteriously with one foot here and one foot there. I wish we were better at saying that there has been dispute among Christians from the beginning about everything relevant to the Christian faith and that the differences among us are part of God’s unnerving creativity.

  3. Diane Roth on November 9, 2011

    arg! great post!

  4. fritz ritsch on November 28, 2011

    Speaking of the multiple meanings of phrases, “help yourself” can mean “take care of your own needs” or “take as much as you want.” From that perspective, Poor Richard’s catchy catchphrase becomes even more offensive: “God helps those who help themselves–to more–and more–and more.” I can’t help but think that underlying any attempt we make to put such words into God’s mouth is our greedy unconscious wishing it were so. I suspect that many Americans have unconsciously bought into exactly the above interpretation of Mr. Franklin, with the result that for them it is an article of faith that the Christian God endorses greed and rapine. (Whatever ‘rapine’ is.) Gordon Gekko as God Incarnate.

    By the way, to show you how seriously I’ve taken your article, I didn’t just assume Ben Franklin said this. I looked it up. And I have found, to my horror, that the actual originator of this saying is Algernon Sydney, who wrote it in his “Discourses Concerning Government” in 1698. Prior to this, the only thing I or anyone probably knew him for was that he is the Sydney in Hampden-Sydney College, my alma mater.

    As always, powerful, thoughtful, humorous, compassionate, and operating at multiple layers. Thanks, Anna.

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