Don’t you love it when Christians quote the Bible to atheists? It happens a lot, and it’s alternately amusing and irritating. Some people do it worse than others, but those who do it seem blissfully unaware that other people don’t revere their book the way they do. When talking to people who aren’t Christians, it never seems to occur to them that doing this just makes people tune them out. We especially check out once the quotations become extensive because it no longer feels like we’re talking to a person. If someone makes a habit of conversing by stringing together long blocks of text not written by them, it feels like we’re speaking to a “bot” of some kind. Any auto-generated web page could pull ten quotes from a source and arrange them according to word similarity. That’s not really having a conversation.
But it’s not just about the length of the quotes. Sometimes it’s about the timing. When talking with Christian friends online, I often find that they can’t help citing a Bible verse as their proof text in order to reinforce a point they are making, as if that is supposed to mean something to me. For non-believers with backgrounds like mine, not only does the citation not prove anything but virtually any passage you select will be so familiar to us that we are weary of hearing it cited for the ten thousandth time, probably arguing the exact same point, perhaps even in exactly the same way as every time before. It’s become like a bad joke among ex-Christians how slavishly it seems people are imitating one another without showing the slightest self-awareness of how badly they’re doing it.
There’s one more problem for former believers like myself. Some of us even have emotional baggage tied to certain Bible quotations because they have already been used as “clobber verses” by people trying to coerce us into obedience to their dogmatic pronouncements. Some passages can be triggers for people like us because, well-meaning or not, people have pushed us to the point of actual trauma. The thing about following a “revealed religion” is that it emboldens people to think they can tell everyone else how to live and think, and this inspires emotionally abusive behavior even from people who are ordinarily sweet and unassuming, all the while keeping them completely in the dark about the effect their actions are having on their victims. They’d be horrified if they were to realize what they’re doing because many of them are accustomed to being sensitive to interpersonal nuance and nonverbal cues. Religious dogma has a way of numbing that sense so that people don’t see what they’re doing to others. Throw the fear of eternal torment into the mix and you’ve got a recipe for conversational dysfunction.
So why do people quote the Bible so much to people who don’t want to hear it? Why do they use up so much space and time referencing a book with people who don’t value that source the way they do? What makes them keep doing this?
Why Christians Can’t Stop Quoting the Bible
The first reason they do this is habit. They’re used to talking to other Christians and this is often how they talk to each other. I spent enough decades going to church to know the place that Bible quoting serves in a Christian community. Evangelicals spend enough time talking about the Bible that its phraseology permeates regular conversation. You can become so Bible-soaked that in time you come to think in biblical vocabulary, so it’s only natural that your speech would reflect that. Christians whose communities pride themselves on being “Bible-believing” learn to speak to each other in quotes. They do it so much in everyday conversation among their own kind that they can’t help doing it when talking to other people who aren’t in their community.
But how did it get to be such a compulsion within their communities in the first place? Why has Bible quoting become such a habit for them? And why do they keep expecting that to change the way we think about anything? It’s almost like they think quoting the Bible will work like a Jedi mind trick. So where do they get this misconception? It would help a lot to understand the place that speaking “the word of God” has served in the Protestant Christian tradition, most of all among evangelicals.
Evangelicals are taught to believe the Bible is a magic book. They would protest vehemently to the use of that word because they are also taught that “magic” is a dirty word. My children’s grandparents discouraged the oldest of my four girls from reading Harry Potter books for years because evangelicals fear such things will cause children to turn to sorcery and witchcraft. Thankfully, toward the end of the first semester of her 7th grade year, my eldest had a teacher who finally put a copy of the first Harry Potter book in her hands because she had read every other series the teacher had to offer her. Before the end of that school year my child had read all seven books in the series through seven times. Soon after my next two girls made their way through the series multiple times as well and I suspect the fourth will take up the torch before too much longer. Okay, so maybe I’m looking for an excuse to brag about my children. Deal with it.
Despite their aversion to the word “magic,” Christians where I live are taught to believe the Bible has special powers, and that the recitation of it carries a power of its own kind to effect change in the people who hear it. Where did this notion come from? What has led them to believe that the mere recitation of excerpts from the Bible “does things” to people? Not surprisingly this belief stems from the Bible itself, which frequently stresses the centrality of “the word of the Lord” in the lives of the faithful. The theologically sophisticated will resist simplistically equating this phrase with the Bible itself, but frankly they’re more the exception than the rule, and even the sophisticated revert back to this tendency whether they realize it or not. Here is a sampling of statements the Bible makes about “the word of God.”
“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire…”1“Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”2
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart”3
“…you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God”4
“So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”5
“For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…”6
If you paid attention to what those verses assert, they suggest that the speaking of “the word of God” (whatever form that takes) does things to people. It’s supposed to accomplish something within the hearts of its listeners upon contact. Christians are taught to believe that the mere speaking of their message carries a supernatural power to it. Sometimes that means reciting a rehearsed plan of salvation memorized from a Billy Graham tract. Other times it’s just quoting the Bible itself, cutting and pasting the text for others to read…again.
Been There, Done That, Got Several T-Shirts
Of course the “again” part is often lost on them. They rarely can appreciate just how many times we ourselves have pored over the texts they are quoting. And I don’t mean superficially reading them, either; I mean many of us have at one point or another devoted our lives to understanding the text, approaching it in full faith that God was speaking to us through that text, ready to submit our lives to whatever it asked of us. They cannot comprehend that because it doesn’t fit what they were told would happen in such cases. They were told that a person who comes to the text with that much sincerity and receptivity to what it has to say will be rewarded with spiritual fruit of some kind. You reap what you sow, and all that.
But many of us did that for years only to find that it eventually lost its magic. Maybe it worked on us for a while, but we eventually began asking questions which the text couldn’t answer, or answered incorrectly, and we faced a decision to either accept that the Bible isn’t a magic book, or to squelch the unwanted dissonance and try to act like everything is fine. Any error had to be in our reading of the text, but it cannot have been that the text itself was flawed. The one thing that cannot be allowed is that the text could be wrong. I call this principle “quantum hermeneutics.”
Quantum Hermeneutics. (n) The principle of biblical interpretation whereby a verse changes meaning each time an inconsistency is discovered, thereby rendering it impossible to directly observe a mistake.
I think after a while the early Christian communities ran into this same problem and they had to come up with an explanation for what was happening. That’s why in the gospels we ended up with Jesus telling a story about the seed which fell upon different kinds of soil. For most of my years as a Christian, I identified with the soil that took in the seed and produced fruit because it was adequately prepared to do so. I didn’t want to be like the soil that was too rocky and too shallow to continue bearing fruit beyond an initially productive phase. Worst of all, I didn’t want to be like the path that was unable to even take in the seed, symbolic of those unable to hear the all-important word of God being spoken to them. As a Christian I always read that parable trusting that Jesus really said whatever the Bible says he said, but I think it’s more likely that the early church, which produced those stories a full generation later than the time they were supposed to have been spoken, put those words in his mouth in order to deal with the apostasy of so many others who started out following the demands of the church only to later leave it behind.
I think that story grew up as way to rationalize why the supposedly supernatural word of God wasn’t really doing what they were taught it was supposed to do. Their message seemed to work on some people, but for so many others it was powerless and unpersuasive, and that’s really discouraging. I’m sure it’s frustrating to recite Bible verses which make one group of people shout “Amen!” but make another group shout “Shut up! We’ve heard this before!” Surely the problem lies with the hearers, not with the messengers. More importantly, it cannot…it must not…be the fault of the message itself. That above all things cannot be impugned. Though everything else be maligned, the message itself must be above reproach, because the entire religion hangs in the balance. If the message can be wrong, then they will be awash in uncertainty, cut loose from their moorings, grasping at reality with nothing but their own reasoning and the collective intelligence of the rest of the human race to figure out how to orient ourselves toward the world in which we find ourselves.
Come to think of it, is that really so bad? I think that plan works a lot better than you think it will. I’d recommend giving it a shot. In my experience, the world makes a lot more sense this way than it ever did while I was trying to make it track with what the Bible says. But you don’t have to agree with me. All I’m really asking is that you learn to hold a conversation without falling back into regurgitating passages from a book that we don’t see the same way you do. It doesn’t work like a Jedi mind trick.