My friend Chris Schmidt, who always posts the best articles on his FB page, posted another fabulous one yesterday from the New Yorker called The Scourge of Relatability. You should go read it, and then come back.
Did you? Did you? I hope so. If not (sigh), then here’s a brief recap: Rebecca Mead responded to Ira Glass’ tweet in which he called Shakespeare “unrelatable” with a very on-point discussion of the questionable importance of relatability. When did we become so obsessed with this need to be relatable? Why is it all of a sudden the barometer for all works of literature, art, and talk show host appearances?
I couldn’t help but think about how this relates to the complaints I hear often about reading Scripture. Any preacher knows what I’m talking about, because preachers are asked to make Scripture “relatable” to someone’s life in 2014 America, which is a lot to ask of someone, trying to bridge 2000 years in 20 minutes with a soul-stirring resolution to boot. I have a working thesis that this is why preachers often skip the Old Testament passages. Jesus is hardly relatable most of the time- he’s an eccentric unemployed single guy who operated in a way that no culture, before or since, would find normative. But that’s an easy sell when compared with Elijah challenging a group of Baal’s prophets in a duel on whose God can make fire come onto an altar. What’s relatable about that? How can we begin to “compare” that to our current reality? Maybe the WWF? The Super Bowl? The Cold War? More importantly: IF it’s relatable to something today, does that necessarily mean it’s a good thing?
Look: if you’re reading about tribal wars amongst people who believed in varying forms of sacrifice and thought the earth was a dome-shaped entity composed of three parts, which is to say, reading large portions of the Bible, it’s not particularly relatable. But that is hardly the point of reading it. I was listening to a podcast yesterday and someone (who was not a person of faith) mentioned how utterly strange and unrelatable the Bible was, as if that fact was a) not totally obvious to any of the 2.2 billion Christians in the world, and b) a slam-dunk case against reading it. Why, he asked, would you ever want to read something written by people who didn’t understand half of what we do about the human mind, or the universe? I had to wonder whether this guy ever took the time in college to read Plato, who didn’t know a whit about our current body of work in psychology or neurobiology. Did he not study the Pythagorean theorem in mathematics, since the Pythagoreans performed rites of purification for their souls, believing that to be the way to ascend to the gods? Does he find Sun Tzu’s The Art of War equally distasteful because it doesn’t cover areas of of guerrilla warfare or terrorism?
I just don’t happen to believe that relatability is the means by which we decide whether something is worth reading. I have no desire personally to catch a whale, but I think reading Moby Dick was a good use of my time. I have no idea what it’s like to live by the Mississippi River in the late 1800s, much less what it’s like to be a rowdy young boy who enjoys playing risky pranks on people, but I still quite enjoyed reading Tom Sawyer. I absolutely do not understand, nor want to live under, the courting rules of 19th century England but that hasn’t kept me from adoring Pride and Prejudice. This is to say nothing of reading books and stories from completely different cultures than my own, of people experiencing joys and horrors far removed from my own life. I read books to gain perspective on things which do not directly “relate” to my own experience.
As this relates to matters of reading Scripture, I think the problem is that we wrongly expect for Scripture to “make sense” to us. We expect it to be readily understandable. And most of the time, it just isn’t. This is not a normal book, first of all. You don’t read it like you read Moby Dick, much less like you read The Hunger Games. You don’t read it because it is directly and easily relatable to your life. You read it precisely because it is odd, and strange, and it forces you to pay attention and read slowly and figure out the context and then ask yourself really big questions about the meaning of life and the character of God and the actions of humanity. That is not an easy task. Which is why I am so constantly baffled when people are surprised to find that it’s actually hard work to do it.
What were you expecting, exactly?! The Bible is not a self-help book. God help us, some people have tried to make it into one. But that’s not what it is. It’s not direct. It’s not plain-spoken. It’s not, and never will be, “relatable.” That’s the reason it stirs our souls, when we read it deeply. It calls us into a deeper kind of knowing, a deeper kind of questioning and wondering and pondering. The Bible is weird and strange and sometimes even offensive. That doesn’t mean it isn’t absolutely worth reading. It absolutely means it requires our attention, our focus, our grappling and questioning. And when we read it, we cannot do so with the assumption that it’s only or primarily about us.
Says Mead, at the conclusion of her article:
But to demand that a work be “relatable” expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.
The Bible doesn’t exist to please you as its primary audience, or to make you feel understood. It does that sometimes, but that’s not its primary role. Its job is to make you think deeply about the world, and about God, and about your role in it. Its purpose is to form you, and change you- and not just you, but the whole community in which and with which you read it. You can’t expect the Bible to do the work for you. It requires effort, and engagement, and attention. It’s soul work, not beach reading.
When read right, Scripture does the very opposite of a selfie: it holds a mirror to your soul, and it shows you, for better and worse, what’s happening in there.
And, wonder of wonders, when it does that anti-selfie work, it becomes the deepest form of “relatable” there is: it becomes transformative to your very life. So read carefully.