Chester Bitterman’s death announced to all that there is still a place for holiness to confront chaos.

A few days after Chester Bitterman’s assassination by Colombian terrorists on March 7, 1981, a member of his family was interviewed on television by a reporter asking the usual macabre questions. In probing for any covert connection of the young Bible translator with the Central Intelligence Agency, the interviewer suddenly blurted out, “But why should they kill someone just for translating the Bible? I mean, isn’t that a pretty harmless thing to do?”

I was stunned. Harmless? Was the apostle Paul harmless when he was thrown out of Iconium? Had we ended up, after centuries of being reviled, persecuted, and said all manner of evil against, as merely innocuous? That is certainly the perception of our secular culture. The two-edged sword has been blunted—not by censorship, imprisonment, or death, but by a big yawn. The market for martyrs has dropped, and we have no one to blame but ourselves.

I just received in the mail yet another brochure for an adult Bible study. It was printed on enormously expensive paper tinted a tasteful pale brown. Every page of its large format exuded gentility and impeccable scholarship. The Christian church, it told me, “has always insisted its sacred Scriptures are definitive for building theology and regulating life” (emphasis added). Too bad Paul didn’t take that tack in Lystra: it could have saved him a stoning. If only he had had the good sense, as the brochure suggests, to hold regional seminars (at $50 a head) in order to evaluate the successful implementation for a gospel program in local congregations, perhaps he could have avoided such harsh public criticism, even regulated his wildly eccentric life.

Such a utilitarian approach to Scripture is not just a specialty of the genteel arm of the church, either. The much more popular trend toward religion as therapy is accomplishing the same subtle dulling of the blade. Self-help is perhaps the single strongest current in the cultural mainstream today. And Bible study is just another way to happy, healthy living. You can balance your budget, appease your spouse, lose weight, vote right, rear model children, grieve more effectively, and become creatively involved in your community—all through daily doses of Scripture. Of course, similar claims are made for jogging, pyramid power, bioenergetics, and group therapies. It’s a buyer’s market.

Another Bible study, this time using the “relational” approach, tells us our greatest desire is to be “self-actualized or one with God, however you feel comfortable describing it.” Heaven forbid we should ever feel uncomfortable! A distinct discomfort upon confronting the Bible might imply that an equally great desire in the heart of humanity is for self-destruction and the eluding of God at all costs.

“When this great purpose is present,” the preface assures us, “it makes difficulties bearable, inconveniences tolerable, and often dissipates illness.” How I wish this helpful book—along with the group participant’s response manual—could have been put into the hands of Job and his friends. They could have all worked it out together there around the dung heap, hearing what one another said, knowing where everybody was coming from. God could have spared himself (and us) that incomprehensible speech from out of the whirlwind. Doubtless Job’s boils would have cleared up, he would have found the loss of his children bearable, and the inconvenience of poverty tolerable.

To get a glimmer of how harmless our “sacred Scriptures” have become in our society, all we have to do is watch our language. Comfortable, concern, issue, solution, involvement, interpersonal (or meaningful) relationship, priorities: all the reassuring vocabulary of both the religious and secular elements of our society. Why are the words interchangeable between sacred and secular contexts? Why are they so bland? Why do they seek to circumlocute passion out of existence? It is a vocabulary obsessed with denying that the world is indeed out of control; it gives the illusion of safety and snug categories easily manipulated. Its sheer lack of vigor betrays an immobilized imagination. Whatever became of glory, blessed, righteousness? Somehow we feel we cannot live up to such a lexicon anymore, and we lack the creative courage to invent equally powerful words for our own age. So we settle for facilitator, change agent, and self-actualization—ugly little makeshifts, but they are, after all, eminently safe, harmless, socially acceptable. No one laughs and points when you say them, much less throws stones. We used to have a Holy Bible, a holy book. Now we have a harmless one. No one even knows what holy means anymore. It’s a profoundly discomfiting word.

In a recent interview, social critic Susan Sontag observed that no one in our culture wants anything to be hard. She told of a young woman writing her doctoral dissertation on Proust, who had asked her rather wistfully if she didn’t find it hard to read Proust’s novels—all those long sentences. “There are all sorts of changes like this,” Sontag concluded, “of people more and more finding things hard, of people not having the necessary energy.” The necessary energy is exactly what the writers of these Bible study guides are lacking. Any limp phrase, any imprecision of thought, any infelicity of expression, any bastardized vocabulary will do, so long as it is harmless enough to make a place for itself in the market. We even find ourselves eager to exploit the secular impression of the Bible as a benign prophylactic precisely because it sells better that way. The often uncomfortable and anguished lives of the book’s characters are glossed over in the interest of a marketable evangel.

Chester Bitterman died from a failure of imagination. Not his own, God knows. His had all the necessary energy to carry him, his wife, and two small daughters to an isolated Indian village in Colombia. He was capable of the hard thing. And according to the reports of his lively conversations with his captors, he probably had the time of his life in those four weeks before they killed him. It was the terrorists’ imagination that failed: they could not imagine someone risking everything to save the language as well as the souls of an insignificant tribe of aborigines. So they killed him.

And that death, tragic as it was, gives us hope. There are still places in the world where holiness can confront chaos. That is when the Word of God is not harmless.

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