There’s an old Sunday school song which my wife grew up on (and which we recently discovered they were very fond of in Kenya), which goes:
“Read your Bible, pray every day
If you want to grow.”
Now of course there’s nothing wrong with this message in the right place. For one long stage of the Christian journey it’s (for the most part) entirely appropriate – if perhaps slightly works-based and guilt-inducing (our 5-year-old son recently expressed a worry that he couldn’t be growing because he wasn’t reading the Bible every day). In Alan Jamieson’s schema, it’s a caterpillar-stage song, appropriate for the early ‘pre-critical’ phase of faith marked by insatiable appetite and enthusiasm for all things Christian – books, sermons, services, worship music.
But The Evangelical Liberal isn’t primarily a blog for the caterpillar phase; Christians in that stage are already amply catered-for elsewhere. Rather, this is a place for those who are beginning to move beyond that phase into what Jamieson identifies as the chrysalis – the place of struggle and change, of the deconstruction of former beliefs and practices in preparation for the transformation to a new kind of faith. This is primarily a blog for ‘Chrysalis’ Christians, for dark-night stumblers and wilderness wayfarers – though all others are very welcome.
For these chrysalis Christians, the old message of ‘read your Bible, pray every day’ can come to sound like a word of death, not of life. The old spiritual disciplines and practices, the songs and services and daily ‘quiet times’ that have fed them up to this point now feel dry, dead, empty, hollow; frustrating and guilt-inducing rather than life-enhancing. Many will try harder at this point, desperately trying to regain some of the old enthusiasm, but to no lasting avail. Are they falling away from faith – have they ‘lost their first love’? No. They are simply moving into a new, difficult but ultimately transformative transitional period of faith.
The Bible and worship songs
For many Christians, two of the great things that have fed, sustained and even delighted them in their early ‘caterpillar’ walk have been reading the Bible – learning, studying and engaging with ‘God’s word’ – and singing worship songs, expressing their love and gratitude to the One who has so profoundly changed their lives.
Conversely – and perhaps for this very reason – the Bible and worship songs are two of the things that dark-night, chrysalis Christians often find most problematic and least helpful. The worship songs no longer express sentiments or often even beliefs that they can relate to; they can feel distanced and alienated during times of exuberant praise or intimate worship. This can be very painful and confusing.
The Bible carries even more baggage. For one thing, dark-night Christians have often fed on it to bursting point in their pre-critical caterpillar days; they don’t want (or need) any more of it right now. All caterpillars have to stop their incessant feeding when the time comes to retreat into the chrysalis.
Secondly, for dark-nighters the Bible is for the time being inextricably associated with – indeed foundational to – old, rigid, black-and-white ways of thinking and with external-authority-based believing, which at this point they are needing to deconstruct and to disconnect from. When they read the Bible they can only hear the old fundamentalist doctrines and guilt-laden messages which they can no longer accept; so they feel alienation and even anger. Again, this is confusing and painful.
Christians at this time need to feel free not to read the Bible – hence the title of this post. They need to feel free to lay aside former ways and practices – and doctrines – for the time being, without condemnation or guilt.
Prayer in the darkness
People at this point often experience a similar sense of alienation towards most other formerly-embraced spiritual disciplines and practices – church attendance and involvement, mission work, serving, theological study, devotional ‘quiet times’ and even prayer.
At this stage, Christians may abandon former regular habits of praying and instead find themselves crying out to God in new and very different, uncomfortable and unconventional – even uncontrolled – ways. These are often cries of deep hurt, anger, abandonment. They may not be polite, restrained or reverent; I’ve written of my own experiences of swearing at God. Prayer in the lonely dark of the chrysalis is a very different thing to prayer in the light and joy of early, pre-critical faith.
So when I say ‘don’t read the Bible’, of course this is not meant as a piece of universal advice for everyone at all times, any more than I’d advise swearing at God as a standard model for prayer. Rather these are things that may be appropriate or helpful for this particular season or stage of the journey, the time of the dark night and the desert. It’s okay to let the old practices die for a time, to lay them aside until they are once again able to be helpful.
All being well, and with proper support and encouragement, a time will eventually come when the dawn breaks and the desert gives way to green pasture again; when the chrysalis breaks open as the new butterfly pushes its way out into the sunlight, ready to fly. Then at last, when the time is right, the newly-emerged Christian will be ready and able again to engage fruitfully in church, in reading the Bible, in songs and other forms of worship. But it will be a new kind of engagement, a very different way of being Christian from before. It will be a way of openness and colour and life, embracing mystery, uncertainty and paradox, and able to accommodate struggle, pain and darkness.
- Books: Chrysalis by Alan Jamieson
- Walking in darkness – reflections on Holy Saturday
- The life-cycle of faith – stages of spiritual development
- Love yourself or die to self? Christianity and counselling