The Bible You Never Expected – The Gospel Coalition

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Collin Hansen: Nothing we expected yet everything we need. That’s what Michael and Lauren McAfee suggest. You’ll find when you read the Bible for yourself. That’s the charge to the millennial generation in their new book, Not What You Think: Why The Bible Might Be Nothing We Expected Yet Everything We Need, published by Zondervan. Michael and Lauren write this book to millennials, those born between 1980 and 1995. Believe it or not, this is the largest generation in American history, 78 million or one in three adults today.

Collin Hansen: Within five years, this generation will account for 75 percent of the U..S workforce. Michael and Lauren write to their millennial peers, which includes me, born in 1981. Michael is director of community initiatives for Museum of the Bible and a teaching pastor in Oklahoma City. Lauren’s father, Steve Green, founded Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., and she works at the corporate office of Hobby Lobby. They’re both pursuing PhDs in ethics and public policy from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Collin Hansen: In Not What You Think, Michael and Lauren are honest about themselves and the Bible, which is appropriate since unpolished honesty is what you get in the Bible. They write this: “The Bible is a unique source of comfort because compared with all the other books on the market today, the Bible is the most honest about the failures of humankind. You will not find a more authentic ancient religious text than the Bible.” You may think Job is about finding a job as Michael’s friend did. Well, you’re in for a rude awakening if so. But the story might just be what God intends to carry you through crisis.

Collin Hansen: Michael and Lauren join me on Gospelbound to discuss happiness, authority, suffering, and the surprises we find when we read the Bible for ourselves. Thank you for joining me, Michael and Lauren.

Lauren McAfee: Thanks for having us.

Collin Hansen: I want to start with you. Millennials pursue happiness but they don’t report being very happy. Why not?

Lauren McAfee: I think that for our generation we see things changing so rapidly, there’s a new iPhone every 12 months, Instagram, you scroll and you see so many things that you don’t have. And so I think that there are things in place that our generation has grown up with, such as social media, rapid change, that has led towards our generation thinking that happiness is going to be found in obtaining the things that we’re constantly being marketed to that we are told we need. And all of those things are frivolous and passing away.

Lauren McAfee: And so, one of the things that we highlight in our book is the idea of the Bible’s timelessness and the uniqueness in that for our generation who can get so caught up in things that are not timeless. And so for happiness, it can be really fleeting to get the latest iPhone or whatever, have the coolest post on social media and then five seconds later, it doesn’t really matter. So happiness, we try to wrestle through that in the book in an honest way and say, “Let’s think a little deeper about what we’re really using in our lives to shape our idea of happiness.”

Lauren McAfee: And we encourage millennials to look toward the Bible, something that has been around for millennia, that has been a significant book in many people’s lives, millions of people’s lives, and is timeless and get something deeper, that can give something even beyond happiness, and that is peace and joy. So yeah, we hope that our generation will be thoughtful about that in considering the Bible.

Collin Hansen: Well, Michael, access to the Bible has never been more, I guess, never been so easy, and the digital transformation is just remarkable when you see that and you guys touch on that in the book. But given the accessibility of the Bible, what prevents more millennials from picking up and reading the Bibleand this is the keyfor themselves? And not just to take what somebody else has perhaps said or what they’ve perhaps heard about the Bible?

Michael McAfee: Exactly. I love what you just said, Collin. That’s really the challenge that we end Not What You Think with, which is in reading the Bible for yourselves, we intend to challenge the skeptical millennial that has watched an hour of a late night talk show where they’re ripping the Bible apart and making fun of it, poking fun at different aspects of the Bible, and shaping their entire view of this book that has withstood criticism for many centuries, to say, “Hey, you’re taking what’s universally pretty much accepted as the most significant book and in many ways, the most significant item in history and dismissing it because of someone else’s opinion. Why don’t you read it for yourself before coming to a conclusion that it’s not for you?”

Michael McAfee: But we also intend to challenge our peers that would be described as Bible engaged or Bible believing that aren’t engaging with the Scriptures for themselves and have a shallow belief of, “I was told that the Bible is God’s Word, and I haven’t wrestled with it, I’m not engaging with it for myself, I’m just receiving platitudes and my timeline, Jeremiah 29:11, pops up. And so that’s my engagement with Scripture.” We’re wanting to say, “You actually haven’t read the Bible for yourself either.”

Michael McAfee: And if we’re going to be thinking people today and we’re going to engage with all of the great ideas and all the great books and thoughts throughout the world and that we’re connected and we can, the Bible deserves a seat at the table, deserves the attention for you to come to the conclusion about what this book is for yourself rather than only taking what others have said to be true about it.

Collin Hansen: I was not, I guess, not shocked, but maybe still a little bit disheartened, actually a lot disheartened. I was speaking a few years ago at Cornell University, Ivy League School to Christians there and they were describing to me some of the challenges that they face on campus. And I asked them what their peers think of Christianity. And the Christian students said, “It’s very clear they think about one church, everything they know and think about Christianity boils down to one church.” You guys, want to guess which church that was?

Michael McAfee: I’m afraid to.

Lauren McAfee: I don’t know.

Collin Hansen: Go ahead. Go ahead and guess.

Michael McAfee: Lakewood? Westboro Baptist?

Collin Hansen: Westboro Baptist. I mean, those probably would have been the two choices, but Westboro Baptist. And I said, “Let’s just stop for a second and let’s think about how some of the world’s most intelligent young people think of the bedrock of Western civilization, this remarkable movement, the largest religion in the world and they only think of it as an overgrown family cult from Topeka, Kansas.” That’s a bit of a challenge.

Collin Hansen: So I was talking about Christianity therenot just the Biblebut, of course, I can see the exact same problems there for the Bible from people who… I mean, if all you know is Westboro Baptist, it’s just pretty clear you haven’t spent any time investigating that for yourself, and it can be very discouraging. It’s why I appreciate you guys’ challenge in this book. Michael, I want to ask you this question as well. This is a very common theological move you often see from critics outside, but also I think inside the church as well. And that’s people who try to separate Jesus from the Bible. Explain what’s wrong with that move.

Michael McAfee: Yeah. Well, Jesus, we would say doesn’t give you that opportunity to, right? He himself uses the Bible as the bedrock for his life. As a matter of fact, I’ll read something we didn’t write in the book but from foreword. Tim Keller talks about how Jesus himself that is, it doesn’t give you space to have an understanding of who he is outside of the Scripture. With the Scripture, Jesus made every decision, interpreted every event, and got the strength to face every challenge.

Michael McAfee: It was the mainspring of his life. Everything was understood through the grid of Scripture, and everything was done through the power of Scripture. So that means it would be impossible to embrace Jesus and reject the basis for everything he believed and did. To respect Jesus, you must respect Scripture, and to make Jesus the basis of your life, you must accept the basis of his. So I love that. And that really was what we were wanting to drive at with this book is that Jesus is a popular figure, which is phenomenal.

Michael McAfee: We’re pleased that many millennials who would not identify as Christians say that Jesus was a great teacher or a great man, and that’s a fine starting place. But if you’re going to begin there, we want to ultimately lead you to the place that was the bedrock of his place, which was the very Word of God.

Collin Hansen: It seems that a lot of people who are trying to separate Jesus from the Bible aren’t doing that to somehow prioritize Jesus’s teaching though that does happen in some cases. But perhaps they then can dislodge the Bible so that they can add their own views, or substitute their own views for Scripture because Jesus says the hardest things I think biblically of anybody in the Bible. So I’m just not quite sure what that effort is meant to accomplish except a sleight of hand to be able to perhaps dislodge something that you don’t like from the apostle Paul, or maybe the book of Joshua or something like that.

Lauren McAfee: I do think that is an aspect of it and from our research and the conversations that we were having with millennials, we found that for a lot of people, some of the assumptions that they were believing about what the Bible is teaching, what it’s about, were based off of experiences that they had with either the church or someone who claimed to read the Bible. Because of that, I think for some people, it’s easier to try and take Jesus out of it and de-attach Jesus to the rest of Scriptures because they think, Someone believed in the whole of Scriptures and they were a hurtful person to me. So I don’t really like the Bible but Jesus, I mean, he seems cool. So I don’t want to throw him out. So we’ll just accept him and I think he’s a cool person, he loved people so we’re just going to go with this theme of Jesus and loving people.

Lauren McAfee: But yeah, we try and push back on that. In making the point that Michael just made that, Tim Keller is writing in the foreword that really you have to take Scripture if you’re taking Jesus because it was the foundation of his life and Jesus is that what, in our book, say, the Old Testament and New Testament, it’s all pointing to Jesus. And so we love when people are Jesus fans, but we need to look at Scripture and see what God is doing from beginning to end and in the context there.

Collin Hansen: I really appreciate that the book is not millennial bashing. It wouldn’t make much sense for you to so. But there’s plenty of that out there.

Lauren McAfee: There’s plenty of that out there.

Collin Hansen: So we don’t need to add to that. So it’s not bashing millennials, it’s targeting millennials though. And I think one of the things that’s most confusing about people bashing millennials is that where do we think they learned?

Michael McAfee: Exactly.

Collin Hansen: I mean, if they learned these from people who are not millennial parents and from church leaders who are not millennials. So Lauren, what attitudes toward the Bible did you guys find in your research had been handed down to millennials by their parents and church leaders?

Lauren McAfee: Yeah, I think that for our generation, we were raised with… Well, there are a number of different things that influenced our generation. The fact that we’re a large generation, impacts how we see ourselves. Because we’re such a large generation, simultaneously, have this feeling of importance because we’re a part of a big group. And so we think we can accomplish something. But then also the feeling of being lost in the midst of just the hugeness of our generation, 70 million millennials.

Lauren McAfee: But growing up with social media, we’re informed but we’re also impatient. Our generation is also very passionate about a lot of different causes where the social justice advocates out there. And so we have a number of influences on our generation. And I think that having been influenced by those things in our generation but then having the generations above us, that have raised us, who many in culture have been taking steps back from church engagements.

Lauren McAfee: So whenever I was young, I may have been at church, on average, three or four times a week, whereas today, the average family is maybe if they’re really dedicated church intenders, they’re there once a week. And so I think that that has also played its effect in our generation and just seeing this lack of commitment. And our generation wants authentic, just anything that is authentic because we’ve grown up being marketed to and sold on so many things.

Lauren McAfee: And so I think that those, in our generation, that are believers and engage in Scripture and have a faith commitment, are looking to have a deeper faith than maybe they’ve even been challenged to by some churches who are trying to have the coolest light show to attract young people when you can go find cool light shows anywhere, give us something that’s different than culture. And so I think that that has brought some, for those that are believers in our generation, a different level of depth.

Collin Hansen: It seems like the contemporary church phenomenon, sometimes when you look at it, you realize it’s not very contemporary anymore and yet it’s still listed as contemporary. You’re like, “Yeah, that music was great when my mom was listening to it on the cassette player in the car, in our Buick Regal back in about ’89.” So it’s like the contemporary church phenomenon itself is dated. Either it continues to move on into greater and greater relevance, which is irrelevant, or else it tries to latch on to something more lasting.

Collin Hansen: And so Michael, let me ask you that. How do you distinguish between old and outdated? Because there is that assumption in many cases that if it is old, it’s somehow not relevant but there is a distinction. Some things that are old are incredibly helpful and relevant, and they’re not least bit outdated.

Michael McAfee: Yeah. Well, I love the way you phrase right there. And I think that’s exactly right, that things that are old are not by necessity, irrelevant and are not necessarily… The newer is not always better. That’s something we point out in Not What You Think, that for millennials, we are in this constant pursuit of the new, right? Like the newest iPhone that comes out, we want it, and it’s a better version of the old phone, it’s got a better camera if nothing else. And newer cars obviously. Now, they parallel park for you, you don’t have to try and do that on your own. I mean, on and on and on.

Michael McAfee: And so there’s this mentality of newer is better. And so newer churches or newer forms of worship or whatever it might be are better and there’s some great… In the same way, there’s some great advances in iPhones and cars and everything, there’s some great advances that we’ve made as the church and we love working at Museum of the Bible. I love celebrating, saying, “Let’s be on the cutting edge in some aspects.” So I’m very much in favor of having a modern contextualization in our churches.

Michael McAfee: However, what we are wanting to point out in Not What You Think is in our constant pursuit of the new, we have lost sight of something that is timeless, of something old that’s not outdated but that actually has much to say to us in our present day and yet, typically, from my experience, what often happens is, millennials have this shallow view of Jesus like you’re alluding to, that’s made in their own image that agrees with everything, agrees with their opinions, their political preferences on and on and on, and then shape a view of what the Bible is around that.

Michael McAfee: Then when they come to the scriptures, and it speaks out that we are sinners, that we are not basically good people and giving us platitudes of how to live an even more full, more happy life but instead say, “No, actually, the problem is inside of you. It’s not outside of you.” And yet it also points us to the remedy which is far greater than anything we could have hoped for which was that happiness can be found, not from looking within and discovering ourselves but from looking up and seeing God, seeing Christ for who he is.

Michael McAfee: And so that really, that explanation I just gave, really explains the tagline of why the Bible might be nothing we expected yet everything we need. It’s not the culturally affirming, what feels right to you, find your own truth. It stings and that it says, “No, there is objective truth that does exist, and you are the problem yourself.” And yet it also gives us everything we need. It gives us a far better answer and solution than what the world is promising today.

Collin Hansen: Yeah, one of the parts of the book that really stood out to me was what you wrote about the two constants of the Bible. You said the first is the human tendency to fail. The second is God’s steadfast love and patience. So yes, of course, it can be a very discouraging message if you’ve grown under that message right there of expressive individualism within our age of authenticity, and yet, I think there’s plenty of evidence and anxiety levels and things like that, that that view of looking inside yourself doesn’t really bring help. You need deliverance from the outside and that’s precisely what the Bible does.

Collin Hansen: Lauren, I wanted to talk to you about marketing. You point out that this generation, millennials, do not trust official sources in corporations, because as you mentioned a couple times, we’re so relentlessly marketed to. But it seems like we ought to be able to flip this to our advantage because one of the key sources of millennial trust is word of mouth. And what better thing to market than those of us whose lives have been transformed by the words of Scripture, to share that person to person. So is that a viable “marketing” strategy going forward?

Lauren McAfee: I like it.

Collin Hansen: Or what am I missing?

Lauren McAfee: Yeah. No, it is interesting to consider how our generation having grown up with marketers following us since we were young and all the ads you get on social media, the way that marketers are realizing millennials are following what they’re trying to sell is by going through people. So you that’s how you see this rise of like social media influencers in terms of they’ll show like, “Oh, well, this is the latest thing I bought, and I’m loving it.” Because there is that, we want a personal witness of someone who’s not the company but is just a friend saying, “Yeah, I bought this and I love it.”

Lauren McAfee: So I do think and considering just where we’re at as a generation, that can be used to just help us remember that we do have the ability to share our story of how God has changed our lives and as believers to be willing, to be honest about our faith and are inauthentic about sharing the love of Christ in our context and have the boldness to do that. I think that one of the other things that is unique about our generation is we’ve also tended to have a reluctance to push anything that we believe on someone else.

Lauren McAfee: So even though we are willing to maybe say like, “Oh, I use this product, and I like it, so I’ll vouch for it.” We also simultaneously are not wanting to push any of our truths on someone else. It’s very much a, “Well, this works for me but you get to decide what works for you.” Because of this individualism that is so prevalent in our culture. So we have to wrestle with that and not shy away then as those of us that have faith and want others to have the same relationship with Christ, to be willing to say, “This is who Christ is and this is what his teaching is.” So I think that that can also bring a grand challenge because of what we’re seeing in our generation.

Collin Hansen: I think the situation is fairly complicated there, because we grew up hearing a lot within the church about the evils of relativism and postmodernism. We heard a lot of things like yeah, you can’t impose your truth on anybody else. You can’t force, you shove these things down their throat, all that kind of stuff. But I guess, I don’t know. Do you guys see the same thing I do? I think that’s a very selective approach. Because plenty of people shove recycling down my throat, plenty of people shove the idea that consent is the only thing that matters in sex down my throat.

Collin Hansen: It seems like maybe that’s true of religion. For some reason, people decided religion is one of those things you can’t impose on anybody else, but if my Facebook feed is any indication, everybody in my generation is very willing to tell me what to do politically. So I don’t know. I mean, it’s just a confusing thing. But let me jump to politics, Michael, and ask you this. This is kind of a complicated question. Okay. So concerning politics, this is what you guys write: “When the Bible becomes the property of one political party, the result is inevitably alienation and rejection.”

Collin Hansen: I think we can all agree on how that’s worked out. But follow me here for a second. So let’s say it’s the Republicans who take the Bible seriously; that’s not always the case but let’s just run with it. Let’s say that the Democrats are the ones who don’t take the Bible seriously. And thus, the Bible then is seen as a partisan document, which makes it toxic to millennials. This is confusing to me though. Because how does the fact that one party takes the Bible seriously somehow become reason for millennials to reject it? Because why wouldn’t you just look and say, “Well, the Democrats that are making the Bible partisan for rejecting it not so much Republicans who make it partisan by accepting it.”

Collin Hansen: It seems like a lose-lose situation for the Bible. It’s like saying the Bible is rejected as partisan because it’s rejected by partisans. Am I making any sense there at all? Bail me out here.

Michael McAfee: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. I think that in conversations and in our research, we see this statistically, that what you were alluding to, that group that you spoke to that associated the Bible immediately with a hate group, that there’s a lot of associating the Scriptures or really evangelical Christianity with the Republican Party. And so, one of the things that I am constantly trying to do as I’m having conversations with non-believers in my life, in Oklahoma is to help decouple or separate out evangelicals as a voting block from what evangelicalism truly is, which is a theological position, right?

Michael McAfee: And so that’s what we’re driving at and totally agree that whenever the Bible becomes the means to strong arm, one political platform at the expense of the other, I would rather the church stand outside of the two-party system that exists in our country and be able to critique both and to affirm both where we can really celebrate what Democrats, Republicans, Independent, Green Party, Libertarians, whatever group to say, “Hey, this resonates with Scripture. And there are aspects of each party’s platform that do resonate with Scripture.”

Michael McAfee: And so it’s not a matter of we want the one that resonates with Scripture more to win and the other to lose, its that we want both to look to Scripture as a means of inspiration for how we should love our neighbor.

Collin Hansen: A lot of the latest social psychology that I’ve been reading for, in recent years, indicates that in America today, people’s political allegiances are more powerful than their religious allegiances. And that they will adjust their religious allegiances in order to fit their politics. So I think we commonly hear the story from the right that Republicans have made the Bible toxic by making it partisan, but I think we may lose sometimes the fact that you have a number of people who, in wanting to be Democrats, then feel like they have to reject the Bible because that’s what they view the Democrats as doing.

Collin Hansen: But of course, there’s all kinds of consistencies on both sides. They’re in the same party that wants to reject the Bible on one topic, then wants to cite the Bible on a different topic. So it’s very confusing, but I agree that it’s a major problem for the Bible for it to be seen as supporting just one particular agenda. And unfortunately, we have theologians who’ve lined up across the spectrum who have assured us in their books on politics, that the Bible completely and in every case agrees with one party or the other party, depending on where they’re coming from, on every question. And that’s just unfortunate there.

Collin Hansen: So let’s talk about an example of when the Bible was used prophetically within our culture. Martin Luther King Jr., who sided the Bible in defense of his civil-rights campaign. What he did, he appealed to a common standard in American life that everybody could look to together, almost everybody could look to together as an authority. But I’m wondering, either one of you could answer this one. If someone’s trying to persuade Americans today but you can’t refer to the Bible, what authority are you supposed to appeal to, that can somehow unite people on common values and move us forward?

Michael McAfee: Yeah, I love your example of Dr. King. In our PhD seminars, one of my papers I wrote on him because I was so captivated by the fact that he was a man that led the civil-rights movement and was the leader of this movement for a decade. Plus because he was a preacher that was able to utilize the language of Scripture to mobilize a movement that brought together the church. I think for anyone today… I mean, I think that’s part of what we’re saying is I think that may be a mistake that Christians in the church today could make is to say, the Bible needs to be dominant. It needs to be anything that isn’t Scripture should be thrown out so that it’s polarizing.

Michael McAfee: What I want to advocate for is in a pluralistic society, like the one we live in, the Bible just needs a seat at the table. It just needs to have its fair voice. And if it does, its truth. And if it’s truth and you shall know the truth, the truth sets you free, that as the Bible is proclaimed engaged with, even if it’s one voice among many, it will rise to the top because it doesn’t return void. And so by that what I mean is that with any person that’s wanting to say, “You can’t bring the Bible into this conversation.” Or “You can’t bring your religion into this conversation.”

Michael McAfee: I want to respond, “I’m not telling you the only thing you have to consider is Scripture but I’m saying you do have to consider Scripture in addition to these other factors, in addition to these other voices in our society, the Bible deserves a voice. And if the Bible has a fair voice, then even in a neutral level playing field, the words of God will rise to the top and speak to people.”

Collin Hansen: One more question here with Michael and Lauren McAfee about their book, Not What You Think. Lauren, you guys, waited until nearly the end of the book to share deeply personal stories, moving stories about how the Bible upheld you during times of distress. And the book was published before you had brought home your daughter, Zion.

Lauren McAfee: Yeah.

Collin Hansen: Tell us how God uses his Word to keep you day by day.

Lauren McAfee: Yeah, so in the book that you’re referring to us sharing our story, we shared about how for years and years we were pursuing adoption and trying to have children biologically as well and the doors were closing everywhere we turned in terms of trying to grow our family. And then after six years of trying, we finally were able to successfully adopt our daughter, Zion Laurel, and she’s 2 years old now. We’ve had her for just six months. And since we’ve released the book, we finalized her adoption. And then seven weeks after we adopted Zion, she was diagnosed with cancer. So that has been post publishing this book.

Lauren McAfee: But the lessons that we write about in Not What You Think about how Scripture gave us so much hope and peace in our darkest days of infertility and failed adoption attempts was the same foundation that we had walking through our daughter’s cancer journey. She’s in remission now, thank goodness, we just got the news a month and a half ago, she’s in remission. And all through the journey of her cancer, we also were continuing to find peace and hope from the promises of what God has given us in Scripture and his good character. And so we hope that people can find that same peace and hope in Christ that we’ve had even on our darkest days.

Michael McAfee: Yeah, we were just talking with someone this weekend about that experience. And one of the things we were commenting is how it’s popular for our peers to base their understanding of true reality in their personal experiences. And I am so grateful that before the storm came, we had set our understanding of reality into the Word of God because it was an anchor for us in such a way that if I had allowed my view of God to be shaped by after nearly seven years of trying to have kids finally bringing home a little girl, and then cancer hitting, and just rocking us, I would have seen the entire situation and said, “God, you’re either not there, or you’re not good to do something to prevent this from happening.”

Michael McAfee: But because we had a big understanding of who God was, that we see in the Scriptures, we began to pray and hope that he would bring himself glory through her healing. And that’s what to this point, praise God, he has done. But even if he hadn’t, one thing we were wrestling through along the way, is even if our only purpose is to love this little girl in her final days, then that is… We can trust a God who did not spare even his own child, his own Son that gave him up as a ransom, as a penalty, as a sacrifice for us. We can trust that God as the old Spurgeon quote goes, when you cannot trace his hand, you can always trust his heart. And so the Scriptures were the bedrock of how we viewed God which gave us a consistency, an anchor in the midst of a storm.

Collin Hansen: The book is Not What You Think: Why The Bible Might Be Nothing We Expected Yet Everything We Need. The authors Michael and Lauren McAfee and they have been my guests on Gospelbound. Michael and Lauren, thank you for this book and thanks for joining me.

Lauren McAfee: Thanks for having us.

Michael McAfee: Thanks, Collin.

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