Monday, June 11, 2012

Quoting a verse from scripture is a good thing to do, don’t you think? It never hurts for someone to read God’s word. But it isn’t quite that simple.

Open a Christian non-fiction book and you are likely to find many references to Bible verses. Sometimes, those verses are just references to tell you were to look to find supporting evidence for what the author is saying. Other times, it may be a quote taken from the Bible. Open a Christian novel and you may find that the author has put a few of their favorite verses at the beginning of each chapter. Or maybe one of the characters recites a verse to another character. I have a love for God’s word and yet I find that I often skip over some of the verses authors include in their work. I figure there are a couple of ways I can look at that. I can take a self-deprecating attitude and say that I don’t love the scriptures as much as I should. Or I can look for another reason.

The thing we need to ask ourselves is why devout Christians who love to study the word of God ignore verses when they are quoted in novels and other books. I believe it has a lot to do with context and flow. Consider Proverbs 29:18. This verse is taken out of context probably more than any other verse in the Bible. When it is quoted in a book, it is often quoted as “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” The author is usually talking about leadership and in the context around the verse talks about the need for a leader to “cast a vision”, etc. As readers, we don’t take the time to understand what the verse is actually saying because the author of the book is explaining why they think the verse is important in the context they have placed it. It takes us out of the flow of the author’s writing to consider the verse in its original context. We could spend hours looking at the meaning of that one verse, when what we really want to do is understand what the author of the book is saying.

But suppose we were to open our Bible to look at Proverbs 29:18. What it actually says is “Where there is no vision, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” All of the Proverbs are often written in two parts. The second part will either reinforce the statement made in the first part or it will contrast the statement in the first part. Look at Proverbs 19:15, “[a]The rod and reproof give wisdom, [b]but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.” This verse is one that contrasts the benefits of spanking a child with the harm caused by not doing so. But look at Proverbs 19:17, “[a]Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; [b]yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul.” Here, the second part emphasizing the benefit of correcting one’s son. Proverbs 29:18 is a verse in which contrast is used. The contrast is between “no vision” and “keepeth the law.”

We might wonder what “casting a vision” has to do with keeping the law. If we take a look at the verses around Proverb 29:18, we see that they deal with correcting children and servants. Assuming that Solomon wrote this as a single train of thought, it makes sense to say that he was thinking about what it would take to bring children and servants back to the law. So our focus here should be on the law, not on “vision”. If keeping the law is the contrast with no vision, then that means that having a vision is somehow similar to keeping the law. Vision here isn’t the John Maxwell kind of vision. Here, vision is referring to the visions like what the prophets of the Old Testament had. Or the visions like Peter had when he was sent to the gentiles. Vision refers to a word from God. What if we translated it as “Where there is not word from the Lord, the people perish; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” Now we understand it.

But what does that have to do with our writing? If our readers are reading about “casting a vision” and we quote Proverbs 29:18a and then go back to talking about “casting a vision,” the verse is out of context. The reader may have trouble understanding why the verse is included in our writing because it doesn’t make sense. Have you ever seen people perish because a leader failed to “cast a vision?” The fact is that in every group there is someone who will stand out as the leader. That person isn’t always the person who is authorized to lead. If the pastor of a church, for example, isn’t leading, someone else will naturally assume the role of leader and “cast a vision.” The people may perish because of a bad vision, but there is never a lack of that kind of vision. So Proverbs 29:18 just doesn’t fit with the concept of “casting a vision,” and readers are likely to skip it. But when we bring it back to the meaning God intended, it is much easier for readers to see why the verse is important to the subject.