Where’s the Beef?

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.

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  30 comments for “Where’s the Beef?

  1. July 14, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    Thanks for this wise invitation to the center, and your gentle way of encouraging spiritual growth through honest inquiry, conversation and thus “conversatio morum”, conversion of life, one of the great Benedictine vows. With gratitude for your post this week.

    • Michelle
      July 14, 2014 at 7:07 pm

      Oooh, I love Benedictine vows but I didn’t know about conversatio morum – thanks!

  2. pastordt
    July 14, 2014 at 4:42 pm

    Well amen, and hallelujah! Thanks, Michelle.

    • Michelle
      July 14, 2014 at 7:07 pm

      Sure, Pastor, my pleasure.

  3. pastortrish
    July 15, 2014 at 9:55 am

    Beautifully written Michelle.

  4. July 15, 2014 at 11:22 am

    Amen and Amen! Well said Professor!

  5. Cathy Norman Peterson
    July 15, 2014 at 12:15 pm

    Michelle, I’m intrigued by the way this post continues the conversation about community and Scripture. “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.” I think this deepens that conversation…of course reading in community is no antidote to misusing/misunderstanding our sacred texts, just as reading alone is neither automatically flawed nor innately better somehow. Not to skip ahead to a later discussion, but clearly the Spirit is working through (and in spite of!) us and through the text itself every time we engage it. I thank God for that gift.

  6. July 15, 2014 at 12:46 pm

    Michelle, thanks for bringing us back to community. I just finished reading the Bible for a while in preparation for meeting with a friend. We talk about what the bible is saying to us, the questions we have, the ways in which we struggle with the text or get annoyed with the text, and the ways in which the text is good news that helps us love god, love one another, and love others. I am often amazed at the ways in which God uses us to encourage one another, challenge one another, and care for one another.

  7. jengillan
    July 15, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    Thanks, Michelle! I had not connected or thought of the centrality of scripture in relation to life. That’s a really helpful way to nuance our affirmation. It’s helpful for me to think of Scripture in that sense – that God’s Word is our life source. So when we say we are a people of the book, than in that sense we mean that we are a people who are indeed tethered to God Word, yet insofar as we are tethered to the God of Scripture, seeking to be in relationship with God. And we are tethered to each other, reading Scripture together, and finding God in the midst of this sacred and vital process, albeit sometimes messy (bringing it back to Cathy), ambiguous, or challenging process. But that’s where the beef’s at 😉 That’s the stuff of life.

  8. July 15, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    I’m not sure if I consider someone quoting scripture (even if I considered it overly-simplistic) as “fluff.” If scripture is viewed in centrality, then they are offering should be seen as “core” and substantive—but certainly still needing the essential life-application you are calling for.

    I offer this because we have so few Christians these days who really desire know and value scripture. Personally, I affirm anyone who desires to base their worldviews out of respect for the Word, even if I disagree with them. Proper application emerges as real friends come prayerfully together around the Word, each humbly seeking to grow in spiritual wisdom and understanding.

    My wife makes a lovely fluff that she tops on pies and cookies. It’s light, airy and sweet with no real substance. (You’d never want to eat it alone!) What I consider more as “fluff,” are life applications that emerge without any sense of “core” or biblical structure. Personally, I get that cringey feeling when I encounter “I just feel” theology.

    Word-play aside, I fully agree with you Michelle, and with Paul, who cautions us to “watch (both) our lives and our doctrines closely.”

    • Michelle
      July 16, 2014 at 3:18 pm

      Hi Restoration Cov (would love to know who you are!), This is good – you’re pushing me to be nuanced. I agree with you – just because someone quotes Scripture doesn’t make it fluff. I’m a fan of memorization and speaking words of Scripture in my head or aloud (or teaching my children) – and of course, this is a substantive thing. It’s more when a couple of verses are used to make universal claims, or when one believes that there is one meaning to a text, or when the idea that sacred means something more than exegesis that I get frustrated. I also agree with you on the “I just feel” theology- and so many of our worship songs are that. Feelings are good, important, etc., but there is more to interpreting God’s word. Where we might part ways (not sure) is when Scripture becomes something that is respected above all else (some call it bibliolatry)-even and especially above the mystery of God (behind) Scripture. I teach the Trinity before I teach revelation/Scripture because God comes first – and God is bigger than even the witness in Scripture. Does that make sense? I’m not sure if we’d disagree on that – depends on what you mean by respect. The other way you’ve challenged me and the substance of this post is on the question of respect for disagreement (if this is more what you’re getting at by respect). I think it’s problematic when community agrees so much that they can’t tolerate conflict. Conflict and varying views are crucial to applying Scripture to life in community. I rarely see it lived into well. More often,fear shuts down the conflict, or authority kicks in and everybody else needs to adhere (and in this case we often lose marginalized perspectives) OR communities start to get a group think mentality. All have real problems and I suspect you and I are in agreement about this? Thanks again!

      • July 17, 2014 at 12:22 pm

        I appreciate the gracious and thoughtful reply Michelle. I offered it from a deep respect of who you are and how you think. I totally agree that we’re still on the same page with regard to seeking the reality of God through scripture and not treating scripture as the end-all.

        I’m hope that I’m a part of a loving community where healthy dialogue and varied viewpoints can be expressed from informed biblical understanding. But it’s more like setting up for table tennis. The ball’s going to be hit around by people with various skill levels and occasionally someone’s going to get one in the eye.

        The key for me is that we find agreement in the Absolutes of the biblical story (the most basic elements that identify us as Christian) and from that understanding begin to explore—with grace and humility—how to live (Conviction) and mission (Preferences) together.

        (Btw, I’m Simon Guevara from Austin, TX. I sat in one of your orientation courses some time ago.)

  9. July 15, 2014 at 4:02 pm

    Everbody wants a “proof text”. Prove to me where it says that unmarried people should not live together. Prove to me/show me the scripture that says where homosexuals shouldn’t have sex (the holy grail of all current theological discourse). Show me in the Bible where Harry Potter is ok/not ok for my children to watch or that Pokemon is evil. I get really tired of this use of scripture. How about we use the Bible to enrich, enlighten and explain who God is in life and apply the character of God to all we say and do, as ones who want to be Holy as He is holy.

    THIS discussion is where I lose the attention, potentially respect and certainly influence over many people when it comes to being a teacher of the word. They feel the word is so subjective and not definitive enough . They want the proof text and in the absence of that they feel there is not enough substantive authority for them to build their spiritual lives on. However, once one does say “oh the BIble is very clear on that quote/scripture/text” . . . there is pushback. “The bible is historical and current, it didnt really mean that, etc.) The centrality of the word, then, is viewed as “ishy” or soft, only being capable to inform through flawed humans and not transcendent enough to override our own limited understanding.

    • Cathy Norman Peterson
      July 16, 2014 at 8:55 am

      Did anyone see the discussion in the current issue of Christianity Today about using the phrase “the Bible says”? Andy Stanley writes that we should ditch that phrase and instead say, “Jesus says,” or “Paul says,” especially from the pulpit. I think I’m inclined to agree…that authoritarian usage can trump anyone else’s interpretation/understanding. On the other hand, Will Willimon cautions that our proclivity toward individualism could lead us to separate out Paul from Scripture…interesting in light of this conversation.

      • Michelle
        July 16, 2014 at 3:24 pm

        Cathy, Jill, and Dick – How would you describe the difference between group think mentality and communal reading that is engaging Scripture deeply? I think you can have a culture like that (group think, everyone agrees) as much as a culture where marginal views (that aren’t at the core of a group’s identity) get shut down. In other words, should we accept all dissenting views on some issue in Scripture? Or better to all agree? Ok – let’s make the rubber hit the road with a real issue – how should we treat a brother/sister who interprets Scripture as saying, No women at the pulpit? What practices can move a community who might have views that diverge so strongly?

  10. July 16, 2014 at 9:02 am

    Thanks for allowing me to rethink somethings. Community to me is paramount. The authority to me is scripture and need to look at the whole counsel of the Bible and not just what one verse might say. Planning on rereading this several times. Be blessed!!!

    • Michelle
      July 16, 2014 at 3:27 pm

      Rob! So glad to see you here on the blog! I agree that Scripture is an authority, but I like/prefer the ECC’s language of centrality because it has more life to it. I also think, whose authority? The one interpreting? Because Scripture isn’t always clear – one of my favorite quotes by David Nyvall is: “In order to have an inerrant Bible, we need to have inerrant interpreters.” I wish so much for clarity in all things, but I rarely get it. What do you think? Love this conversation, Rob, and thanks so much for your words.

  11. July 16, 2014 at 9:12 am

    Michelle,

    Thank you for messing with my mind so that the commercial now plagues my mind. I’m not sure even Moses could help deliver me at this point. That being said, this was absolutely wonderful to read, which I’ve done multiple times. One of the parts that struck me was, “…. 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.” It got me to thinking that any ambiguity we might have in our relationship with God is in part a struggle in the “ambiguity of relationships” between the words of his Word.

    Also with regards to words, I often go back to those of former NPTS OT professor Fred Holmgren – words that were almost a mantra – “We must be careful not to say too much, but we also don’t want to say too little.” It’s just so hard to know which is which. But still we are called to speak amid the ambiguity, to be prophets and priests, even though we know only in part. I am inspired and challenged by what you and others are saying.

    • Michelle
      July 16, 2014 at 3:29 pm

      Love Fred’s quote – thanks for bringing that in Stan and thank you for your great words this week (and last!). So for kicks, here’s the original commercial:

  12. July 16, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Cathy, my issue with “the Bible says” is when it comes from an individual and I have no sense that that person has been struggling with the text in community and has heard what “the Bible says” from someone else’s point of view. This is particularly true for me when we do not “hear” what the Bible says across gender, racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic barriers. When we listen to one another listening to and responding to the text I think we end up with a much fuller understanding.

    • Cathy Norman Peterson
      July 16, 2014 at 11:58 am

      Amen, Dick. Clearly that phrase can become a trump card. And failure to listen kills all of these conversations–with the texts, with each other, with the rest of our communities.

  13. Tyler Menssen
    July 17, 2014 at 1:16 am

    Great post Michelle, and a very good discussion so far. This in some ways retraces what’s already been said but I wanted to comment on the issue of “The Bible says…” and also on Scriptural authority. First, I completely agree that God is bigger than Scripture but Scripture is also (I believe) a way God has chosen to reveal himself to us. So, if I may:

    The Bible says I am made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) – An affirmation.
    The Bible says I am to love my neighbor as myself (Lev. 19:18, et al.) – An exhortation
    The Bible says that there will be a time when death will be no more (Rev. 21:4) – A promise.

    From the pulpit, I don’t want these to be “maybe’s.” I want to be able to with authority say that, yes, we are all made in the image of God, we all have an obligation to love our neighbor, and there will be a time when death will be no more and God will be with us. Why? Because God made these promises to us in the Bible, and I believe in the authority of these promises.

    My point isn’t that there aren’t ambiguities in Scripture. There are and we need to look at Scripture with a very careful lens taking into account not only our own interpretations but those of biblical scholars and others with far greater knowledge and experience than ourselves (which in this conversation, is all of you compared to me) but my fear is that sometimes we go too far and we take away the authority of God’s affirmations, exhortations, and promises. Things that uplift, challenge, and give us hope. And I think that is one of the fears of many more conservative evangelicals when Scriptural authority is questioned. The Bible is more than a list of do’s and do not’s (as your post eloquently says, Michelle) but is a story of God’s affirmations, exhortations, and promises and I think it’s important that we can highlight specific verses in the Bible, as well as the overall story, that highlight these things. Although, I also think the times where we are commanded not to do something are important too (e.g. the 10 Commandments) But in sticking with the positive, Biblical authority and saying “The Bible says…” can be a wonderful thing that brings comfort, hope, and peace to those who hold that Word to be central and/or authoritative.

    • Michelle
      July 18, 2014 at 8:56 am

      This is wonderfully said Tyler- responses such as this are one of the reasons I love teaching and learning from my colleagues-students.

  14. Cathy Norman Peterson
    July 17, 2014 at 8:13 am

    Michelle, re: your question about “group think,” I wonder if our tendency is to simply ignore the text than to wrestle with our differing understandings of it, or, on the other hand, to ignore our differing understandings and say (at least internally), “Well, she’s wrong. I know what it really means.” This difficulty lends itself to the “big sort” mentality described by Bill Bishop in his book by that title, where we all find churches and communities that say things we already agree with, so we don’t have to engage those difficult conversations or wrestle with divergent views on things that do genuinely matter. The flip side, of course, is to just lambaste anyone on “the other side” of our view.

  15. July 18, 2014 at 10:15 am

    Michelle and all responders, It is refreshing to read and be challenged to think about our relationship with the Word, the God of the Word and with the community that struggles to live in and with it. I have read over and over about how” we interpret the Word” but no one has spoken to the issue of letting the Word interpret us.
    It is much more uncomfortable for me when I come to the Word and ask, “Lord, what does your Word see and speak about my life?” I suspect the Word interprets each of us differently–even if we might be in the same situation. If we are not looking for “a rule” to fit all but instead allowing the scary prospect that God may have a different thing to say to each of us (even though we may be in similar places) we approach Scripture quite differently. I am not saying there shouldn’t be interpretation of the Word, that would be foolishness and dangerous. I am just throwing another thought into the ring. Thank you for your thoughtful work.

    • Michelle
      July 23, 2014 at 7:58 am

      Becky – I love this comment. The ECC’s paper on reading Scripture uses this phrase as you may know, and I think it is right on the mark. Thanks!

  16. July 21, 2014 at 9:29 am

    Michelle, I think “group think” is an issue which is why I suggested in my earlier post that we need to read and interact with Scripture across as may boundaries — gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic, generational as we can. if I can do it face-to-face then i need to be reading what other folks are learning and saying. When it comes to the issue you raised I think it is not so much accepting someone’s point of view as it is receiving it. I think it is perfectly fine to say “I don’t accept that but I receive it as your understanding. Let’s talk about it some more so we can understand one another better.”

    • Michelle
      July 23, 2014 at 7:58 am

      Thanks Dick!

  17. July 23, 2014 at 9:57 am

    Michelle, awesome reflection. Thank you! I just had a conversation about this very subject over the weekend. A friend and I were on a long drive, so we had a lot of time to talk about deep stuff. About an hour in, we hit the topic of how we read the Bible. He’s from a tradition that reads the scripture literally and yet at the same time he went off about how what he loves about the Bible is anyone can pick it up and get what they need from it.

    Well… while I believe that statement is mostly true: Anyone can pick it up and understand it. I think his truism usually translates into Christians using the Bible like a magic eight-ball. You shake the eight-ball up and see what floats to the surface. We open the bible place our finger on the page and see what it’s saying to us–no study–no concern for the writer’s context or what they were trying to communicate–no concern for how the original hearers would have understood the text–just what verse did my index finger land on, that’s “God’s word to me today.” This is soooo dangerous. It makes the scripture all about “me.” Much more could be said here. But I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to start this conversation.

    #nomoreeightballbibles

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