The Soil of Partial Truth
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.”
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.