We all have secrets. Some secrets we intentionally hide; others reside deep in our subconscious hiding unaware, pretending to stay out of sight for our good.
As I have studied the historical background of the Bible for the last 20 years, I have repeatedly discovered Jesus’ message to be shaped more by our attractions than his intentions. When I have shared what I learned in chapels and classrooms, Bible studies and beer gardens, the response has been mixed. Many would rather retain what they like rather than learn what Jesus meant.
For many of us, we like the freedom to extract phrases Jesus said and flood them with meaning we feel is right. We prefer to pull out powerful statements from the Bible and metaphorically make them speak to us however we so choose. We don’t like to change our minds.
As Blaise Pascal, the 17th-Century French scientist and Catholic theologian, said, “People almost invariably arrive at their beliefs not on the basis of proof but on the basis of what they find attractive” (De l'Art de persuader, 1658). 21st-Century science agrees.
I have sat through enough small group discussions, Christian businessmen’s meetings, and destination trip devotions to recognize the prevalence of the “choose your own adventure” method of Bible study. We love to start with what is important to us, find a verse that can express what we feel, and then deliver our opinions on the matter without regard for what the verse really means. We love to add “this is what the Bible says” before what we want to say.
That’s what happens when we read about Jesus calming a storm and then metaphorize it into a promise that Jesus will resolve the “storms”—or problems—in our life. We are inserting our desire to live a more stress-free life into narratives that have nothing to do with that. We start thinking about what problems Jesus could make go away before we ever take the time to think about what the point of Jesus’ action was in the first place (read chapter 5 of my book Reenacting the Way of Jesus if you want to figure out the original point of Jesus’ miracle).
Psychologists call this phenomenon “myside bias.” Myside bias kicks in when we ignore contradictory evidence that does not agree with our preexisting opinion. It causes us to search unwittingly for evidence that agrees with our views. This human tendency, which resides in us no matter how high we score on intelligence tests, makes it profoundly difficult to actually learn from someone or something else.
When we read the Bible, we do so with myside bias. We find what we are looking for. It’s a rarely discussed and dark secret inside all of us. We like to confirm our suspicions. We like to be right. We like to presume our best guesses are what God would say. And we don’t want to be held in check.
None of us wants to endure the uncomfortable humility that we have been creating God in our own image all along. We would prefer to inject the Bible’s meaning with our personal interest in therapeutic self-care, or theologically-justified escapism, or the American Dream. We would prefer Jesus speak to the things that are important to us rather than us get on board with what’s important to him.
That’s why I have written my upcoming book What Jesus Meant. I have researched tirelessly in multiple languages so we can hear Jesus’ words in the ancient conversations that defined their meaning. I want to anchor his message in the original cultural moments that shaped them, and not in our assumptions. I don’t want our twenty-first century fads or personal preferences to masquerade as Jesus’ message.
The stakes are too high. Our myside biases too easily alter what his words meant. And if our assumptions go unchecked, then Jesus becomes a fleeting fabrication whose relevance fades whenever we pass into a new season of life.
It does take humility. We have to get comfortable with being wrong. I can’t tell you how many times I have sat discouraged when the research corrected my misguided presumptions. It is hard to accept that you have been slanting the truth to your side. It is disappointing to realize you have been believing something Jesus never really meant.
But it is worth it. Correcting our misperceptions through careful study of cultural artifacts and ancient texts, geographical dynamics and linguistic insights, should create a holy discontent with our standard practice of reading the Bible to reinforce preexisting opinions. Exerting the energy to hear Jesus’ unique message in his world rather than fitting him into ours is worth it. He can take us to a life we could never lead ourselves to.
If you want a taste of what is to come in the book, read one of these convention-bursting blogs: