Beth Moore, Bible Studies, and Obama

I am wading into dangerous waters.

For years I have been aware of the popularity and ubiquitous presence of Beth Moore among friends and family members of various churches. Beth Moore is, in fact, so commonplace I feel almost like a heretic as I write this post. Her Bible studies loom large in evangelical women’s groups and Sunday school classes. For goodness sake, is there anyone who can claim she doesn’t at least know who Beth Moore is, or more likely, has not studied at least one of her books?

Despite being a woman who believes she should not “preach” or teach men, few people are as well-known among contemporary Christians as Beth Moore. Even more than her omnipresence, it also is true she has made a positive contribution to many. Reading comments by people who have read her books and/or worked through her Bible studies, confirms how important she is to a lot of women (her primary audience).

Given these realities, that Beth Moore is not only wildly popular but also must have something good to say, one may wonder what exactly propels me to write about her, especially since a critique of her is likely filled with a thousand land-mines, many of them resulting a good old-fashioned Internet thrashing, I’m sure (can’t wait!). It may be that I relish too much my natural inclination to be contrary. Or (and I hope this is more right) that I think there is a reason for her popularity that has to do with reading the Bible in an “acceptable” way, one that does not challenge some of our most cherished aspects of American privilege.

For those who have any familiarity with Moore, they know to be prepared for her Bible study by having the corresponding materials and something to write with. Of course, this is in addition to utilizing their Bibles (kudos to Moore for this!). I am obviously a huge fan of taking notes, but this isn’t exactly what is expected of a Beth Moore Bible study.

Early in my education—elementary or middle school—I remember filling out worksheets; pages and pages of statements requiring me not to learn anything in particular but to find a word embedded in one place and transcribe it accurately to my worksheet. Locating the right word involved skimming texts searching for matching phrases. Such excises did not utilize my ability to think, only to recognize redundancy.

I don’t recall any of my peers clamoring for more worksheets, the desire to fill in the empty blanks a compelling task. And yet, this is the methodology Moore employs in her Bible studies. To my dismay, apparently adults have forgotten their previous disdain for such mind-numbing tasks now relishing instead the opportunity to be told which word fits the corresponding blank. Moore frequently stops speaking allowing time for her audience to fill in the blank or repeat a phrase after her.

What has changed, I wonder, to instigate such a shift? Why would we as children find filling in the blanks to be redundant and boring and yet thousands of adults flock to this kind of presentation, eagerly listening to someone, pen or pencil in hand ready to be told the correct answer to place in a worksheet?

My hunch is there is a comfort in being told what the Bible says and to accept it without question because raising questions is generally not encouraged by our churches. Perhaps for some of us we remember an early experience of questioning something in the Bible; maybe the virgin birth or perhaps the idea that God could not be known outside of Christianity. Despite these questions, more often than not Christians are encouraged to disregard questions and accept in their place a list of certainties. This approach is solidified by presenting the Bible as divine information. Our job is to collect the information into blanks and then commit it to memory.

Unfortunately, this unreflective method to the Bible not only incorrectly pits faith against religion (seen, for example in debates over evolution) it also fails to account for some of the major tenets we should understand about who God is and who we should be as people of God in the world.

If, on the other hand, we read our Bibles aware of the messiness created by a sacred document that is at once divinely inspired and also a product of human endeavor, we realize some things within it may not be as easy as stuff to fill in a blank.

One such theme is rather pointed in Deuteronomy although Moore ignores it in her current online study (at least all of the ones that have aired so far). Even though Moore frequently uses the catchy phrase “Deuteronomy-Economy” to refer to the social context of the Israelites after they have been led out of Egypt and before they enter the so-called Promised Land, she fails to take up a key point of who the Israelites are called to be. She mentions being grateful for food, praising God because that’s what we are supposed to do, and knowing our history. She leaves out the recognition that just as Jacob was an alien in Egypt so do the Israelites have aliens, orphans, and widows among them. And, as part of their worship of God, they were to care for these, the most vulnerable in their midst.

This insight is all the more troublesome for us. President Obama ignited a fire-storm of criticism this week for his decision to address immigration in more concrete ways than the Congress has done in the last several years. I can hear in the reverberations of the debate assumptions about rights as American citizens vs. rights of those from other places. What strikes me as missing from this conversation (I’m being polite to call this a conversation—practicing hospitality, you see!) is the Christian understanding that taking care of the most vulnerable among us is not only the heart of this “Deuteronomy-Economy” it is the essence of the gospel. I say this not to assume that we are a Christian nation and therefore should adopt this position but to suggest that Christians participating in this debate should recognize that part of what it means to follow the way of Jesus is to provide hospitality for the stranger.

It’s a lot easier to read Deuteronomy as the stuff that leads to Jesus’ death on the cross, the consistent theme Moore relies employs. And, maybe this is a good place for a person to start on her or his journey with the Bible. I just hope that people will not stop with such certitudes and easy answers and instead will dig deeper. Together I think we will find the Bible is not only more troublesome and problematic, but also that the way it calls us to is harder than we have imagined. But, maybe this is what Jesus meant about taking up our own crosses.