Saturday, March 20, 2010

And if Not . . .

A friend posted a blog recently that I really got a lot out of and agreed with. Except for one thing. He's younger than I am (isn't everyone?), and he posted on Matthew 7:1 ("Do not judge, or you, too will be judged.") He repeated the idea that this was now the best-known Bible verse among college students, whereas 20 or 30 years ago it would have been John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.")

I believe that is correct. John 3:16 used to be the best known verse, and now Matthew 7:1 is better known. Where I had to differ with my friend was the reason he gave for that. His thought was that his generation had seen so much religious intolerance, from the 9/11 terrorism, to crazy street preachers calling out against things they didn’t like and putting Jesus' name on it.

Hey, there is a ton of religious intolerance in the world. And there are lots of folks who have decided that the things they particularly dislike are the things God dislikes, and they love to share their opinions with you as if they are Holy Writ. I'll agree with that.

But it's not new to this generation. It's not even particularly prevalent in this generation, compared with many others. Let's not forget that Islam conquered all of the Middle East, and a good portion of Europe in the name of Jihad. So that's not new. Let's also not forget that the Crusaders killed virtually everyone in the city of Jerusalem—Muslim, Christian, and Jew—in the First Crusade. You can argue that these were actually political wars covered over with religious trappings. I think you'd be right to argue that. But the point is, intolerance, even violent intolerance isn't anything new.

Just about every generation has seen religious intolerance, and a good many of them believed it was worse in their time that in was in times past. The same thing goes for legalism. It has been here since the beginning, and this generation has it easy when it comes to legalism.

So, what explains the popularity of Matthew 7:1 vs. John 3:16 today?

There is likely not any one reason. But I can think of two factors that are a big part of that.

The first is our society's emphasis on personal freedom and expression. Freedom has come to mean freedom to do anything without worrying about consequences or what the neighbors (or God) might think. Tolerance has been held up as the highest virtue, with a definition of tolerance that our forefathers would never have considered. In the past, tolerance has implied that one idea could be superior to another. One tolerates what one does not agree with. Now, it has come to mean celebration of all ideas as equal.

We have made an idol of personal freedom. And it is not the generation that is now in college that has done this. It is my generation and the generation of my father. In some respects it might be viewed as the pendulum swing away from legalism and strict societal controls on behavior. You can make a case for that. But whatever the reason, the current young adult generation did not create it. They are simply having to live with the consequences.

As a bit of a side note, my friend's blog points out that the young adult generation does judge one another. And they do it on a performance criteria, which is the direct opposite of how God sees us. It is a very good post, and you can read it. The direct link isn't working, so you'll have to go to, click the Archive link, and look for "Do Not Judge."

But the reason Matthew 7:1 is well known is that we have made a society where people do not want to be judged and cannot even bear the thought that someone might think ill of them. That's not really new, either.

As for why John 3:16 got knocked out of the top spot, I think you have to look at how the Bible has been taken out of Western culture. In past generations, the Bible was considered to be a foundational book for education. You found quoted verses in newspapers, magazines, literature, radio, television, theater. It was simply part of our culture. It is only in the past 50 years or so that it has been slowly removed from our culture. I'm not going to go into the why and how of this right now. Chuck Colson, in one of his Breakpoint commentaries gives an example of how ingrained the Bible was in Western culture not so long ago, and how that has changed:

June 1940: Hitler's armies are poised to destroy the cornered British Army, stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk. As the British people anxiously await word of their fate, a three-word message is transmitted from the besieged army: "And if not . . ."

The British public instantly recognizes the message: It's a reference to the biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego standing before King Nebuchadnezzer's fiery furnace. "Our God is able to save us . . . and if not, we will remain faithful to him anyway."
The message galvanized the British people, and thousands crossed the English Channel in small boats to rescue their army.

Fast forward sixty-one years to January 22, 2001: President Bush delivers his Inaugural Address. Afterward, Dick Meyer of CBS News confesses "there were a few phrases in the speech I just didn't get. One was, 'When we see that wounded traveler on the road to Jericho, we will not pass to the other side.'"

"I hope there's not a quiz," Meyer concludes.

What a difference a generation makes. For centuries, biblical references were the common coinage of Western speech. As Dunkirk demonstrates, people were so steeped in the Scriptures they immediately recognized a cryptic biblical allusion. But today that memory has been erased.

There, in a nutshell, is the reason and the problem. Our nation no longer knows the Bible. Or we choose only to know what helps us feel good about our lifestyles. There truly is "nothing new under the sun." And we "reap what we sow."

1 comment:

  1. I was listening to ESPN a couple of weeks ago and they were discussing Caron Butler who was new to the Mavericks at the time. The hosts brought up a quote from Caron, "When I was a child, I thought like a child...", from 1 Corinthians 13 and talked about it like Caron was so wise for saying this. Someone finally called in to tell them it was from the Bible and they were shocked. All that to say I agree that Bible knowledge is at the lowest point ever (at least in my lifetime, right?!) and is one reason people may be grasping for the feelings as the compass bearing important to follow.

    Thanks for your comments. I, too, tend to feel like this generation is the worst at tolerance/intolerance and assume it is because this is the generation I know.

    Keep walking in dust, brother.