In high school you always have a mandatory book to read for English class. Some of them were great; others were a real struggle to get through. But it didn’t really matter what school or grade or book it was because there were always a few students that would never ever read. You remember those people. In fact, maybe you were one of them. I know that I definitely was for a few books: the “SparkNotes student”. I’ve noticed that this is a problem that the millennial church faces as well. We’re totally down to listen to all the new albums and read the ‘Jesus Calling’ devotional someone got us for a graduation present. We can tolerate doing things that look and sound like God, but we are usually unwilling to open up the Book that is the very Word of God. We are the “SparkNotes Christian”.
One of the books I SparkNoted was the Heart of Darkness, and for the life of me I can’t remember what the book was about. I can’t recall enough to share with anyone else at a basic level, let alone show them something new, because what little I did know was already available online for everyone else to see. In the same way, if we do not spend time in Scripture, we have only song lyrics and inspirational quotes from Christian Instagram pages to share. Authors ranging from A.W. Tozer to the pioneers of the Malayalee Pentecostal movement have written thousands of incredible books. These books all teach us remarkable things about God, yet all of them were rooted in the Bible. This is because the Word of God is sufficient for everything we need to know about God. But over time there have been different interpretations of Scripture and we as young people have a responsibility to challenge and find truth in these interpretations. Paul tells Timothy that that is the very purpose of Scripture, “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16) and this must be done by everyone. It is not enough for us to just sit upon the determinations of past believers because then we lose authenticity in our faith. If what we believed the Word of God meant was because a prior generation believed it, then we do not put our faith in God’s Word, but in the words those of other men, and women. As a church we must continue to press into Scripture for “part of the genius of genuine Christianity is that each generation has to think it through afresh” (N. T. Wright; and yes, I see the irony in using a quote). A task like that cannot be accomplished if the Church is full of SparkNotes Christians.
The reason why SparkNotes does not work well is because it fails to give you anything beyond the plot line. You don’t really understand the characters or context, and it’s never enough to help you pass a test. Similarly, devotionals and books about the heart of God and His unending love for you are abundant and undeniably inspiring. But how much better would it be to see book after book in the Bible itself tell you of God’s relentless pursuit of His people, to truly help you understand His unending love? Singing “No Longer Slaves” without understanding Paul’s explanation of our freedom, inheritance and the future glory in store for us makes the song weaker and not what it was meant to be: a proclamation of praise about Who our identity is in! These are just a few examples, but you get the point. The significance of all these other things that we focus on is founded in Scripture, yet without the Scripture itself we just skim the surface of God’s heart. This minimal understanding sets us up to fail every test that comes our way because we do not see God’s Word as our counsel (Ps 119:24) nor as the source of life giving promises we need to overcome our trials (Ps 119:50).
There is no doubt that all of these books and songs are God given and are significant, but why wouldn’t you want the very best that God has? C.S. Lewis says of these “SparkNotes”, “that if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers.” So like every English teacher ever said, read the actual Book. And even though not every book in English class changed our lives, the Word of God will leave you like the Psalmist, finding “his delight in the law of the Lord and meditating on it day and night” (Ps 1:2).