On being boring

According to a computer analysis, one particular Sunday in the 1950s (the 11 April 1954, to be exact) was the most boring day in the twentieth century. The most interesting things that happened on that day were a Belgian election (yawn) and the birth of a Turkish physicist specializing in atomic microscopes and computer chips. Apart from that, nothing much else happened.

Being boring seems to be a particularly heinous crime nowadays, even amongst Christians. Of course, this isn’t true at all times and in all places. It’s hard to think of the Protestant martyrs who were burned at the stake in the mid-1500s, or Christians today in Pakistan being sentenced to death for blasphemy, being especially worried about the prospect of boredom. On the other hand, if you’re reading this, you probably belong to that portion of humanity with quite a lot of time on our hands. Time to read blogs, for example. Or play sport. Or to like things on Facebook. And since you probably spend quite a bit of time reading, playing and liking, you probably care a lot more about the ‘interest factor’ in your entertainment, your sport and your friends than, for instance, the average Protestant martyr.

So is there actually anything wrong with being boring? Is boredom just a 21st century Western problem that we all just need to ‘get over’?

On the one hand, we need to acknowledge that being boring can have terrible consequences. Thoughtful Christian parents know this all too well: there is great danger in boring your kids out of Christianity. If, for example, you teach your kids by your words and your actions that the gospel is a simple formula for a ticket to heaven (especially if your version of ‘heaven’ sounds suspiciously like an endless succession of 11 April 1954s), that the Bible is a book of morality tales to make us nice, and that the world is a nasty place that should be avoided wherever possible; if your kids perceive that you are going through the religious motions of church and sermons Sunday after Sunday, year after year, without it affecting your life, destroying your pretensions or humbling you before God—this is, indeed, perilously boring, for them and for you. And of course, this isn’t just a problem for parents and their rebellious yet perceptive teenagers, is it?

On the other hand, the desire to avoid being boring can be just as perilous. If we care too much about the problem of being boring, we can look for dangerous shortcuts to being interesting. This is a real problem for Christian teachers. Having spent a bit of time in the world of biblical scholarship, I can testify that a deep anxiety to avoid being boring fuels much of the scholarly endeavour. Biblical scholars are noticed, given praise, published and given jobs when they say new, novel and controversial things about their area of specialty (commentary readers, take note!). When biblical scholars just show how this or that part of the Bible fits into the whole counsel of God as preached down through the centuries, nobody is particularly interested. But this is a temptation for anyone involved in Bible teaching. Think of the pastors who feel the very real desire to monitor the latest trends; what people are liking, listening to, watching, clicking, reading, talking about … The temptation is to focus so much on being interesting that we discard anything that is perceived to be boring, to replace the Bible with entertainment or personalities, to replace what is true with what is liked. But let’s not just point the finger at the professional Bible teachers themselves. How often do we all talk about our teachers as if the most important thing that matters about what they have to say is how interesting it is: interesting = good, boring = bad? If the interesting/boring spectrum is the main thing you care about when you comment about your own Bible teachers (in private, in public, online), then you need to repent, because you are contributing to a culture which feeds the production of heresy, which leads people away from Christ.

Really, there is a far better way forward: a way which, in the end, is truly interesting. But to begin with, a lot of it looks quite boring, especially to people who are used to a quick-fix solution to their boredom. It means retelling the “old, old story” again and again, holding fast to the “faith once for all delivered to the saints”, passing on the tradition as we find it in the Scriptures. How boring does that sound! But only on the surface. Just like the sullen teenager who declares his or her parents to be boring, even though they may well have wonderful, interesting and satisfying lives through their deep relationships, their loving family, the joys and heartache of seeing their children grow; so too, to declare this activity as ‘boring’ is to miss what it’s really all about.

Because like any real and deep relationship, an ongoing commitment to the day-to-day drudgeries of our spiritual lives creates something that in the end is truly, profoundly, satisfyingly fascinating in our own relationship with God. Hours in reading and talking about the Bible together; being fascinated with the acts of God in history, in his people and in our lives; discovering and reliving and rediscovering the intricacies and the wonder of God himself as the triune creator and judge and redeemer who lives and acts and loves (the Trinity is so incredibly interesting it can never be boring!); exploring together how all these different stories and realities that we find in the Bible, which can seem so strange, do actually fit together and make sense; being astounded by the way in which God’s Spirit through his word moves us out of blandness, to apparent paradox, then beyond what we naïvely thought was paradox to a deeper understanding of who God is and how he works and what he has done for his own glory and for us in his Son Jesus Christ; seeing our lives and the lives of our brothers and sisters and those in the world around us pierced to the heart, rescued from wrath, turned upside-down, transformed, and resurrected. It would be a heinous crime to think that this was boring, wouldn’t it?

6 thoughts on “On being boring

  1. I was bored here at work, so I stumbled on over to the Sola Panel….  wink

    Seriously, Al Stewart’s book on Men: Firing through all of Life, addresses this issue. Feels like Groundhog Day?  Same ole, Same ole?

    Then go read this book!

  2. Hi Lionel,

    Thanks for this – I still remember how silly I felt when I first became aware of how I was trying to make the Bible interesting with comedy (for its own sake), as if God wasn’t interesting already!

    I have a thought or two that I’m wading towards (floundering more like) and wondering if you’ve reflected on them or not? Or could now for us?

    It has to do with the (frequent) comment that people make: that they are Christians in spite of their Christian upbringing (my parents forced me to go to church and I hated it because it was so boring – the liturgy was boring, the sermons boring, the songs … etc).

    What I’m wondering was whether it was really that bad for everyone?

    It’s impossible in many ways to argue against someone’s experience, and I’m sure it was true for some and maybe many (especially if the picture of boring Christianity you helpfully painted was true for them!).

    But is it the case for everyone? Is their description of their childhood for some actually more revealing of their present thinking? A type of historicism or aetiology – whereby the past is (re-)interpreted to explain a desire for the present (to effect or prevent change in church). Which in turn we convince ourselves of about our past (invent our histories with selective evidence … could testimonies work here too? wink )

    I guess what I’m fumbling towards is this: have you any thoughts to help us think through how to respond to the implications or moral imperatives people use this argument for: ‘my childhood experience of church was boring therefore …’. Especially when these arguments are grounded in ‘infallible’ personal experience.

    I’m thinking particular of two things:

    First church practice (songs especially!): I’ve been in conversations with people over the years who insist that ‘hymns are boring and we can’t sing them’ only to find, further in the conversation, that they love Rock of Ages, and Crown him with many Crowns, or hymn singing was one of the things they loved about school chapel. ie, the narrative we have to speak of publicly with other Christians (because it’s trendy) is different from individual reality.

    I guess I’m wondering what thoughts you have on why we do this? And where to go?

    Second, Christian parenting. Especially with this, I see ‘I was bored in church as a child’ used as justification for a complete hands off approach to their teenage children, and a justification for blaming the minister if the children fall away (didn’t cater for their personality).

    Do you have any thoughts on how to help parents repent of both implications? More of the same of what you wrote, I guess, but can you help me figure out what I’m asking and offer some wisdom?

    I guess to illustrate, I’m struck by my own life, of how lowly I think of myself, and how easy I find it to see a host of examples in my life history that echo and (re-inforce) such a perspective – of shames, failures, lonelinesses etc. But what I’ve been trying to do is do a bit of archaeology: dig into my past and find the good experiences, the happy and joyous things and then let them re-inforce a more balanced perspective of who God has made me to be.

    I’m wondering if we need to do the same pastoral work with people with the boredom in church as a child history: to get them to dig deeper, and realise that they actually liked the hymns, or really respected the quiet earnestness of their minister etc.

    Long winded … thanks for helping … any thoughts appreciated.

  3. Hi Scott, these are really good points. Apologies for my slightly belated and brief reply – dealing with snow, ice and family illness is taking up most of my time at the moment smile Perhaps others will have further reflections too.

    I think that often with kids, or with people reflecting on their past childhood, the real issue is not actually the presenting issue. That is, what really is at stake is not how exciting / boring church is / was for an hour or two each week, but how their family is / was actually responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ for the other 166 hours in the week. Kids who belong to families who are making costly life decisions, who are clearly willing to suffer for the sake of Christ and who are openly speaking of Jesus, repenting, growing and changing will be experiencing first-hand what being a Christian is really like, and will be less likely to be truly bored (even if they sometimes complain of boredom). On the other hand, kids who learn from their parents’ actions, attitudes and conversation that Christianity is a part-time Sunday morning (or Sunday evening) activity and that their Christian formation is the job of the church structures / youth minister / minister, may well respond by blaming their “boring” church experience for what was in effect the hypocrisy of their parents.

    My advice for parents (especially fathers) is that we need to work very hard at leading our families in obvious, wholehearted sacrificial Christian living (in the big and the small decisions), be committed to the body of Christ ourselves, and keep identifying and repenting of those attitudes that rely on “the church” (i.e. the professionals) to provide excitement for our children.

    For pastors, my advice would be to avoid “professionalising” your ministry so much that you reinforce the impression that the responsibility for the Christian life of children rests primarily with the structures of your own ministry, rather than with the parents.

    For those who are blaming their past church experience for their problems (or talking to people who are doing so) – maybe we need to talk about, think about, and take joy in all those other experiences of following Jesus, much as you’ve hinted at. I think we should deliberately change the focus of these kinds of conversations away from “church” (in that narrowly defined sense of my individual experience of certain forms of liturgy and interactions with professional pastors). Why get fixated on the style of hymns or songs, or the length of sermons, when there is (or should be) so much more to the work of God’s Spirit in our lives?

    Hamish: go Al! There’s a man who is definitely not boring.

  4. Thanks, Lionel (and Scott for your reflections) – thought-provoking.

    I remember someone saying once (maybe Graeme Goldsworthy? he probably wasn’t the first … oh well, Hebrew 2:6a…)

    Anyway, I was once struck by the comment that many people – both preachers and their audience – assume that it’s the preacher’s responsibility to keep the listeners interested. Of course, there’s a place for seeking to make our sermons more rather than less engaging, etc. etc. But his point was that, in fact, it is principally the listener’s responsibility to come to the hearing and preaching of the Word (little plug there, Scott) with a right attitude, and to work hard at listening and engaging with God.

    That is, if I’m bored in a sermon, and the preacher is faithfully expounding the Word, it’s not (primarily) that he’s boring. It’s that I’m lazy or indifferent.

  5. Stephen: agreed! But speaking as a preacher, I don’t want to let myself off the hook too easily. Perhaps we should say that one important aspect of “faithfully expounding the Word” for a preacher is working out how to be demonstrably excited when we find something exciting in the Word. This is something I’ve had to learn, and am still learning.

  6. “It were always raining in Denley Moor …”
    The opening of The Testing of Eric Olthwaite, the story of the world’s most boring person, which is a fun non-boring Ripping Yarns video.

    Eric was so boring that when he came back home one day, he discovered that the rest of the family had moved out: they couldn’t take any more.

    I think we do need to be interesting when we speak. Our Lord Jesus told interesting stories and expressed his message in a variety of ways.

    When I was a child, some folk felt there was only one way to express the gospel, only one way to tell us how to respond and there was only one prescribed way to respond to the message.

    It was nowhere nearly as interesting as the way the Bible presents its message in 66 quite different books by about 40 quite different authors.

    But I agree with your sentiments Lionel, noticing that you have crafted what you are saying here in an interesting way.

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