By Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom
One of the funniest catch phrases I remember from my childhood was, “Where’s the beef?” Coined by Wendy’s, the slogan originated in a commercial featuring three elderly women comparing patty to bun ratios in effort to uncover a fast food conspiracy. The conclusion? Big macs and Whoppers have more fluff than substance.
I teach theology and ethics, and I often find myself in conversations with more fluff than substance. Not because of my students – simply because when I tell people what I do, they immediately have something to say, or ask, about their most important issue. Usually, they are testing me. What is your position on…? When I push them to clarify or justify what they’ve suggested, I get a conversation stopper. “The Bible says [insert correct view].” Fluff.
Of course, the Bible is not fluff, but often the way people apply verses or a couple of passages is quite limited and leads me to wonder whether they are using their converting hearts to navigate the God behind the word and the people in front of it. Converting hearts are scary things to apply when interpreting God’s word, but I often find myself going to those well-formed people who know how to love God and people when I have questions about living faithfully. These wise Christians never advise me by quoting a verse. They speak in terms of experience rooted in a long-term relationship with God that extends what God has revealed in Scripture. This is true of most healthy relationships between people, but why are we so fearful when it comes to our relationship with God as it is mediated through Scripture? We want clear-cut authority, not the ambiguity of relationships.
I’ve been accused of being too Catholic, too liberal, too traditional and too female. These don’t really go together, by the way, but I’m ok with that. The thing that gets me is when someone tells me I don’t take Scripture seriously enough.
I was raised with my Bible, it is a primary source for doing the kind of work that I do, and I think it is sacred, mysterious and complex. It’s also an avenue to God that requires my participation and a relationship with God (and all who/that God loves).
This is a truism to evangelicals—we love personal relationships with God. What is not so obvious is that who we are, what we have experienced, and how God has lived with us play an enormous role in how God speaks when we read Scripture. Why would we expect anything less from a personal, loving God?
There are times when I read my Bible and God breathes life anew. There are other times when I’m tired of my Bible because people want me to use it in ways that impede its message of community with all kinds of people. They want me to use my position and claim authority. It seems a cop out, fear, fluff.
Fortunately, I’m in the right denomination, because the Covenant does not use the language of authority in its first affirmation. It uses centrality. What’s the difference? In my book, the difference is life. Authority is about confessing the right answer to: What is your position on…? The church needs more than “the Bible says [insert correct view].”
It needs converting hearts. Relationship starters. And, a high ratio of centrality to authority.