My step mother was a righteous Christian with fundamental beliefs. She had been to Bible College – one year, and a missionary to the Aborigines – one year. She talked endlessly about the wickedness of the world and her main hope was the return of Jesus. At thirteen I wanted to go to the pictures to see the exploits of Hollywood’s heroes and the ravishing Jane Russell in living Technicolor. My step mother opposed this vehemently. I clearly remember her last ploy to make me see the error of my ways. “What if Jesus were to come back and you were sitting in a picture theatre? How would you feel? What would Jesus think?” “What if Jesus came back and I was sitting on the toilet I replied. How would that look?” She had no reply to this. I went to the pictures with her predictions of judgement and doom ringing in my ears.
My step mother often referred to a Bible passage that stated, that on the day of judgement all secrets would be proclaimed from the housetops (Luke 12.3). Now that did worry me quite a bit. I was starting to notice girls and to have strange feelings – a mixture of terror and delight. My step mother sensed this and her stress on the housetop revelations increased. However, I began to wonder about her. I felt the way she treated my father was not right. She was often angry with him, and when she was really angry she would hit him on the head with a saucepan. But at church she acted like the perfect, demure wife. I began to wonder if on the day of the roof top broadcast of secrets, would the world find out how she treated my father. Or maybe, hitting him on the head with a saucepan didn’t matter? Perhaps, this was no where near as bad as going to the pictures?
My brother and sisters, living far away in the city, always read the Bible. It followed that I should read it too. In those days the King James Version of the Bible, also known as the Authorised Version was completely dominant. In my youth the best-looking Bible was the Scofield Bible. It was sumptuously presented with a black leather cover, and gold leaf edging on the pages and indented thumb index. I wanted one but could not afford the price. On the margins of the Scofield Bible, Scofield printed his notes explaining the meaning of the Bible text printed on that page. Many readers took Scofield’s notes more seriously than the Bible verses. Through his notes, Scofield promoted fundamentalism and a particular interpretation of the end of the world and what would follow. The notes also contained pseudo-scientific facts, such as that the earth was created 4004 years ago.
Living as a teen in a huge all-men’s hostel I escaped the hostel on every possible occasion. This meant attending many youth camps and Christian conventions. Bible study was always to the fore on these occasions. When I was 18, with my friend Laurie, I attended a large Christian convention. Apart from learning more about the Bible we had in mind that we might impress some pretty girls. To equip ourselves for this, we had bought new Bibles. But on the first day, the keynote speaker talking about ‘real Christians’ as opposed to phony ones, said you could tell a real Christian by the condition of his/her Bible. He displayed his worn tome with verses underlined and copious hand-written notes in the margins. Laurie and I shrank back in horror. At the next break that day we went behind the big auditorium and did our best to make our new Bibles look worn.
Before entering theological college, around 21, I had many fixed beliefs. I would not hesitate to argue my opinion in any forum, including when Professors of Biblical Studies were present. But, theological college changed that. Understanding the Bible was much more complicated than I had thought. When I realized the Profs were critical of the Scofield Bible I was glad I didn’t own one. On the other hand, we (the theology students) awaited with excitement for a new translation of the Bible, the New English translation. It was published one book at a time and I remember buying the first book, the Gospel of John.
One of the things theological college taught me was to steer away from hard and fast interpretations of the mysterious prophetic books. Our library had many volumes which in their day were the last word on Bible prophecy. Their predictions clearly were off the mark and these books, once best sellers, were now considered of no value.
And now, today people are more hungry than ever for some glimpse of the future. The tele evangelists and preachers in mega churches give them just that. On almost any day I choose to browse religious channels, I see smartly dressed men expounding the secret meaning of the prophetic books in the Old and New Testament. Or, alternatively they are recounting the exploits of Old Testament heroes and putting them into the context of our day.
One of the most illuminating studies we undertook in College was on the subject of how Jesus used the Old Testament. Clearly, he was immersed in these books, but he referred to them almost in passing. He never mentioned most of the Old Testament super heroes so cherished by today’s mega pastors. His method of teaching was to tell stories about everyday life. He asked questions which opened up opportunities for him to share key teachings. He used object lessons and shared one-line insights which stuck in the minds of his hearers.
With the notes in the margins, Cyrus Scofield leads the readers of his Bible to a particular understanding of the Bible. The problem is, this is just one man’s view. However, the way it is written, it appears as though this is the one and only way that these words/verses can be understood. This is fundamentalism. Today, Scofield and his Bible is behind much of the end-of-the-world predictions and Zionist theology. Certainly, he is a source for popular end-times writers such as Hal Lindsey and Tim LaHaye.
In the Moslem religion, a contemporary author who claims to interpret the Koran is Abu Abdullah al-Muhajir. His readers believe his writings explain and expand on the teaching of the Koran in simple language. The 579 page jihadist manual he wrote, ‘The Jurisprudence of Blood’ is behind the brutality that underpinned Islamic State. The text attempts to legitimise the barbarous acts of the jihadist group, including the mutilation of corpses, the trade in human organs, beheading, the killing of children along with “scorched earth operations” and global terrorist attacks. This is the hand-book of jihadist fighters. This is the only holy book they need.
After a life time of thinking about these things, I believe the real enemy of understanding the word and ways of God is fundamentalism. That is a belief which will allow no debate, that insists that this view and no other contains the truth. I am just as afraid of Christian fundamentalists as I am of Moslem fundamentalists.
Jesus said I am the way, the truth and the life. Understanding him is not the work of the intellect only, but mostly of the heart. We are glad for the help that others can give us in understanding the words and works of Jesus. But we should beware of those who insist that their way of understanding Jesus and the Bible is the only way.
When Jesus cleansed the temple, the children shouted ‘Hooray’. The priests were offended. Jesus replied “Children and infants sense when to praise God and how to praise God”. Matt 21.16-17 They get it! It is my prayer that this spirit of openness may live in all of us.
Stan Stewart June 14, 2018