The Soil of Partial Truth

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 Listen to “The Soil of Partial Truth” by Fred Smith

 

A humorous article on Christian music included this quote from Joe Bob Briggs: “Christian music is bad songs written about God by white people.” My friend, Steven Garber then at the Washington Institute and now at Regent College, messaged me back with a piece he and Charlie Peacock had done at the Art House in Nashville. It began with the question “Can you sing songs shaped by the truest truths of the universe but in a language that the whole world can understand?”

In the course of our back and forth Steven passed along this observation from writer Walker Percy “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition so that one never recognizes oneself, the deepest part of oneself, in a bad book. And even when a bad book gives its own sort of pleasure…it leaves a sour taste in the mouth, like a hangover from bad Bourbon.”

There are bad songs about God and bad books about ourselves. All too often we teach them as true — and they are not. They are (in Steven’s words) cheating by insisting on a ‘Christian’ voice that does not belong in the story or even worse, perhaps, a revising of honest faith that does not allow for the breadth and depth of our human existence “glories and shames that we are.”

 Two years ago I heard a teacher of the Psalms remark that our modern worship songs and the choruses we sing are full of praise, hope, thanksgiving and God’s love for us. In fact, he went on to say, maybe there is so much emphasis on God’s love and care for us in every detail of our lives that we have excluded hymns that reflect our own laments, complaints, and petitions. In doing so, have we unintentionally taught that all of our burdens, problems, and questions should be resolved by focusing only on those songs that encourage and inspire us? Something like the power of positive psalms? I don’t think that is what God desires. I think He wants to hear from every part of us. Someone told me recently that the third verse in the old hymns is what they called “the trouble verse.” It was where the writer gathered up all the hardships, cares, doubts and obstacles and put them to music. Those hymns sang about the whole of life – the joys and the sorrows. The laments and the hallelujahs.

In Romans 1, Paul describes a world where men have exchanged the truth of God for a lie. The typical reading of that is to point out the wickedness of a society that has suppressed the truth of God and not thought it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of Him. The result is wickedness violence, perversion, and cruelty.  It is Sodom and Gomorrah.

However, it is just as true and dangerous that we can slip into a similar exchange ourselves when we do not tell the whole truth of Scripture but only focus on those parts that give us comfort and encouragement. It would be easy to treat the hard sayings and the laments in the same way Thomas Jefferson treated the miracles; he simply excised them with a knife. His Bible was no longer fully true and nor is ours when we lift verses out of context and make them into mottos and formulas for happiness and reassurance.

Through a search I learned out of more than 31,000 verses in the Bible, the five most popular for Christians are these:

Jeremiah 29:11; Psalm 23:4; Philippians 4:13; John 3:16; Romans 8:28

They all have something in common in that they are encouraging and comforting. They are hopeful and assuring. They are inspirational. However, they are not the whole truth of Scripture because they do not reveal by themselves the deepest things about God or our human condition when we take them out of context and make them stand alone.

Lies grow best in the soil of partial truth and it is a good thing to be careful that we do not exchange the full truth of Scripture for a partial lie that makes eventually for a good bumper sticker, a bad book, and cheating songs.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “…I’m still discovering right up to this moment that it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. By this-worldliness, I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes, and failures. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God taking seriously not our own sufferings but those of God in the world.”

By picking and choosing the verses that help us gloss over the complexities, paradoxes, heartaches, and suffering that are so much a part of this world we will cheat ourselves and others of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

 

You can purchase my book “Where The Light Divides” here.

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Showing 8 comments
  • Avatar
    Anntoinette Moore
    Reply

    Great column, Fred! Any column written by you containing quotes from Joe Bob Briggs, Walker Percy, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer is bound to be good. We all like the reassuring, easy stuff in the Bible. But it’s like Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace in “The Cost of Discipleship” — it doesn’t stand up to the wear and tear of the real world. I like your columns because you use humor to make serious points. Great image, too. We can’t “smiley-face” our way through the Christian life, though we’d all like to.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Toni. I appreciate that. Yes, now that I look at those quotes they are a bit diverse!

  • Avatar
    Rick Allen
    Reply

    Fred,

    If worship music is all about the love, blessings and reassurances of God, then the lamenting, sorrow, sadness and hardships of life…well that’s called Country & Western Music. It all balances out…right?

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      “Country music is three chords and
      the truth.” Harlan Howard

  • Avatar
    Janet Elms
    Reply

    There is a Bible Study group that sings all the verses of an old hymn before starting. It reminds me of the long-abandoned Sunday night services. Knowing these Christian writers struggled with hardships, cares, doubts, and fears encourages me.

    I am grateful for the saints who wrote the trouble verses and the ones trying to preserve them.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I agree, Janet. Sara Groves is one of my favorite artists for this very reason. She understands the power of laments as far more than complaining.

  • Avatar
    LKM
    Reply

    Which of his books is this Bonhoeffer quote from? Thanks!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      From Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, 2nd ed., London, 1971, p. 369;

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