Skip to content
 

The Bible- Moralisms or Gospel

While reading on the King James I recently found an interesting quote from Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (Alfred A. Knopf, 1976). The portion cited was the following:

“As long as parents fully believed that Biblical stories solved the riddle of our existence and its purpose, it was easy to make a child feel secure.  The Bible was felt to contain the answers to all pressing questions: the Bible told man all he needed to know to understand the world, how it came into being, and how to behave in it.  In the Western world the Bible also provided prototypes for man’s imagination.”

This caught my attention as I agreed with its point, and I was intrigued that it arose in a book on the value of fairy tales (the value of which I have also commended several times at my blog on children’s literature).  However, once I found a copy of Bettelheim’s book, I discovered the rest of the quotation. Immediately following the portion cited above was this:

But rich as the Bible is in stories, not even during the most religious of times were these stories sufficient for meeting all the psychic needs of man.

Part of the reason for this is that while the Old and New Testaments and the histories of the saints provided answers to the crucial questions of how to live the good life, they did not offer solutions for the problems posed by the dark sides of our personalities.  The Biblical stories suggest essentially only one solution for the asocial aspects of the unconscious: repression of these (unacceptable) strivings.  But children, not having their ids in conscious control, need stories which permit at least fantasy satisfaction of these “bad” tendencies, and specific models for their sublimation.

Explicitly and implicitly, the Bible tells of God’s demands on man.  While we are told that there is greater rejoicing about a sinner who reformed than about the man who never erred, the message is still that we ought to live the good life, and not, for example, take cruel revenge on those whom we hate.  As the story of Cain and Able shows, there is no sympathy in the Bible for the agonies of sibling rivalry – only a warning that acting upon it has devastating consequences.

But what a child needs most, when beset by jealously of his sibling, is the permission to feel that what he experiences is justified by the situation he is in.  To bear up under the pangs of his envy, the child needs to be encouraged to engage in fantasies of getting even someday; then he will be able to manage at the moment, because of the conviction that the future will set things aright.  Most of all, the child wants support of his still very tenuous belief that through growing up, working hard, and maturing he will one day be the victorious one.  If his present sufferings will be rewarded in the future, he need not act on his jealousy of the moment, the way Cain did.” (52)

This is a very significant comment which possesses real insight while also betraying a sadly common misconception about the Bible- a misconception found not just in the culture in general but in the church as well.

The major problem is that the author sees the Bible simply as demands for good behavior, in story and precept. The Bible is simply a set of morals. Sadly, this is often how it is preached. And, if this is how you see the Bible, it is certainly not “sufficient for meeting all the psychic needs of man.” But the author, and far too many preachers, misses the Gospel which is the center of the Biblical story! Yes, God’s demands and the negative consequences of disobedience are made clear. But the recurring theme is God’s rescue and redemption of His failing people. The Bible’s answer for “asocial” behavior and feelings is not “repression” but redemption. This is the point of the cross which is the center of the Biblical story.

Bettelheim is on to something when he states children- and adults as well- need to be assured that things will be made right someday. The key to endurance is the hope that the wrongs endured now will be made right and that injustices will be dealt with. However, Bettleheim points us simply to fantasies of getting even ourselves. The gospel points us to the resurrection where our sufferings will be removed and justice will be vindicated, not by our own getting even but by God’s intervention. This, then, is not simply fantasy but a real promise and a steady ground for hope.

Let us make sure as we preach, that we do not stop simply with call to proper behavior but we get to the central point of grace which pardons and empowers (e.g. Titus 2:11-14). Let us also regularly point people to the hope of the resurrection which grounds our perseverance (1 Cor 15:58).

Leave a Reply