I think a lot of people like top-ten lists, so I'm including a top-five one here today instead, just to do something different. Also, it's easier to think of just five things. Following is a list of five evangelical clichés you may have heard at your churches. If you've said any of these (or if you say any of these on a regular basis), please don't be offended by my inclusion of them. But if you're particularly attached to any one of them, feel free to disagree with me, and I'll be happy to have a discussion about it. If you grew up in the evangelical world, you probably are pretty familiar with these statements by now:
- "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it." Believer-turned-skeptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman observes, "Occasionally I see a bumper sticker that reads: 'God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.' My response is always, What if God didn't say it? What if the book you take as giving you God's words instead contains human words?" See Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (New York: HarperCollins, 2005), 13–14. Sound bites like "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it" don't help discussions very much. If an atheist were to say, "God doesn't exist, I don't believe in Him, and that settles it," would you find this particularly helpful? I wouldn't.
- "God wants to deliver us from religion"/"Christianity is not a religion—it's a relationship." I put these two together because they make the same fundamentally annoying error. They redefine the word religion, creating a new "Christianese" kind of communication: When many evangelicals say religion, they tend to mean anything that looks like us trying to get up to God rather than God reaching down to us. Everyone else doesn't understand the word religion this way. (I think most people would say that Christianity—even though we define it as a relationship in which God reaches down to us out of His grace and we do nothing to get to Him—is clearly a religion.) Also, consider James 1:26-27. How can there be such a thing as "pure and undefiled religion" in Christianity if "God wants to deliver us from religion"?
- "Don't intellectualize the gospel." What does "intellectualizing the gospel" even mean? Are we trying to allude to Paul's teaching that "a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough" (Galatians 5:9)? If so, then that's an epic fail. Let's stop using the word intellectual as though it meant the same thing as heretic or infidel. What's wrong with thinking deeply? Did C.S. Lewis "intellectualize the gospel"?
- "The Bible is a collection of God's love letters to you and me." I am not one to underemphasize God's love (and we are the bride of Christ, after all), but using love-letter language to describe the Bible is hugely problematic. What things come to your mind when you think of the term love letter? Maybe the letters that Noah wrote Allie in The Notebook, right? Romantic imagery. Does this story from the Bible come to mind? I hope not.
I understand what people mean when they say they're reading God's love letters, but think about it: Suppose you're a Christian who hasn't really read the Bible but has been told that the Bible contains God's love letters to you, and then you start reading the Bible for the first time. And because you trust the well-meaning Christians who told you this was God's love letter to you, you're going to take along with you some contemporary love-letter assumptions about what the Bible is going to look like.
Let's say you're on the standard read-the-Bible-in-a-year track. You might think it's odd that a "love letter" contains a story about the origins of humanity and God's covenants with people named Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but you continue thinking, "How is this a love letter again?" Once you get to God ordering mass executions (see, for example, Numbers 31:2,17-24), you might start to say to yourself, "Wait, I was expecting this to be a love letter! This doesn't sound very loving to me!"
To be sure, God is love (see, for example, 1 John 4:8), but God is also dangerously holy (see Exodus 19), and He also smites people who oppose Him or His people (see Numbers 31, referenced earlier). In other words, God is not a Care Bear. Also, the Bible was not written to you (or me) personally. Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that the Bible is unintended for you and me. In a deeper sense, it is quite correct to say that the Bible was written as an act of love on God's part for all of humanity—which includes you and me. But the apostle Paul wasn't sitting down one day and thinking, "You know, I should write Becca a letter today. I'll just randomly claim I'm writing to the Galatians instead, but I'm really writing for Becca. And it isn't really even me who is writing this. It's ultimately God's love letter. Word."
Furthermore, if you read Galatians, it's a pretty harsh letter. Sure, we could argue that Paul was being loving toward the Galatians, but when you write a "love letter" (in the romantic way we think of love letters), do you call the intended recipient of your letter "foolish" (see Galatians 3:1)? The Greek word translated as "foolish"—ἀνόητος—could also imply a lack of intelligence. So "you stupid Galatians" might even be an acceptable translation there. Hmmm… I'm not so sure Noah ever said to Allie that she was "stupid" in his love letters to her—unless, of course, he was being playful. But the context of Galatians doesn't allow for Paul being playful. He was quite serious. (Read Galatians. It's an important letter about the grace Jesus provided for us on the cross.)
So all that to say that this is an unhelpful cliché. The Bible is simply not God's collection of love letters to us—it does contain His revealed message to humanity, but our contemporary term love letter carries connotations that simply don't accurately describe the Bible. In fact, I would contend that the Bible's greatness goes beyond the paramaters of the term love letter—it talks of the one who has the power to bring us from death to life (see John 5:24).
- "got faith?" Got creativity?