Yesterday, I finished reading the book, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, by Stanley Hauerwas (Abingdon: 1993). Hauerwas contends that American Christians (and consequently other Western Christians) grant ourselves too much liberty in studying the Bible because we insist that each individual seek the illumination of the Holy Spirit in isolation from other Christians. This populist notion of divine guidance contradicts what the New Testament says about discipleship within the church. Moreover, history shows that every virulent Christian heresy and cult started with an individual reading and interpreting the Bible without being accountable to a community of mature disciples.

To emphasize his point, Hauerwas proposes that we not give Bibles to new converts, children, or even teenagers. Let them hear and read the Bible only under the guidance of a wise pastor, and in the company of well-seasoned students of the Word. (Right. As if kids don’t know how to use the Internet.)

But he raises a valid concern. Few congregations are the schools of faith they used to be. They are places of fellowship and celebration, centers of political activism, and occasionally points of epiphany (on those rare occasions when epiphanies occur). But few congregations are centers of disciplined spiritual study and dialogue. They perpetuate the American ideal of every citizen as a spiritual entrepreneur, which leaves us vulnerable to every Joseph Smith and Jim Jones who blows into town.