Disintegration is one of the constant dangers of ever-increasing biblical and theological specialization. As disciplines are broken down into subdisciplines, fields of study meant to work in concert can quickly become isolated entities. If we are not vigilant, an unnatural and treacherous chasm can quickly grow between theory and practice, knowledge and wisdom. Cross Talk by Michael Emlet, a counselor and faculty member at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF), is the kind of interdisciplinary work the church needs in order to guard against such atomization. Emlet notes that while there are multiple books about biblical interpretation, few help readers with the “spiritual task of connecting Scripture with life” (p. 2). He aims (and, in my opinion, succeeds) to help readers become better interpreters of both the Bible and of people.
In the first chapter, Emlet describes what he calls the Ditch vs. Canyon Phenomenon. In some instances, the distance between our lives and a biblical text is relatively short; it’s like stepping over a ditch because the connections are readily apparent. But that’s not so with much of the Bible. Other passages seem so culturally and historically removed from our everyday experience that they are more like canyons. “Our tendency,” says Emlet, “is to gravitate toward the ‘ditch’ passages because they seem easier to apply; it’s easier to make a connection between then and now. Ditch passages resonate more quickly with our experiences. They have a greater immediacy, so we hang out in these tried-and-true passages and we skim—or avoid altogether—those pesky canyon passages” (p. 7). The result is that while we confess the whole Bible’s inspiration and profitability for all of life (2 Tim 3:16), functionally “we end up ministering with an embarrassingly thinner but supposedly more relevant Bible” (p. 16). Emlet helps Christians reclaim the Bible’s thickness. “What I’m trying to do is to push you a bit, to encourage you to get out of familiar ruts. I want you to see that more difficult (canyon) passages still apply to our lives . . . . I want your Bible to ‘grow’ in its applicability” (p. 87).
After claiming that our conceptions about what the Bible essentially is determine how we interpret and apply it (p. 23), Emlet lists several popular notions (a book of ethical commands and prohibitions, a book of timeless principles for life’s problems, a casebook of characters whose examples are to be imitated or avoided, a system of doctrines) and explains why they fail as accurate descriptions of what the Bible is primarily about. In contrast to these, Emlet contends that the Bible is primarily a narrative of God’s revelatory words and works in which Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of all of God’s promises and the solution to human sin and suffering. “In the day-to-day ordinariness of our lives, and perhaps particularly in the face of struggle, it is difficult to grasp that we are part of a larger story in which we play a vital part. A kingdom-centered or Christ-centered view of Scripture keeps our royal identity and purpose always before us” (p. 44).
As the book’s subtitle indicates, the author’s aim is to help Christians become better able to minister to each other by wisely and compassionately bringing the christocentric narrative of the Bible into meaningful contact with the narratives of each other’s lives. Emlet notes, “Reading the Bible without reading the person is a recipe for irrelevance in ministry. Reading the person without reading the Bible is a recipe for ministry lacking the life-changing power of the Spirit working through his Word” (p. 90)
In an attempt to make sense of our lives, each of us relies on a complex of largely unconscious beliefs and assumptions about ourselves (e.g., our identity and purpose) and the world. “Ministry,” says Emlet, “is about helping others see the storylines by which they are living” (p. 71). Failure to recognize the dominant story that is shaping and directing the course of one’s life leads to a solution-focused approach that looks “a lot like putting out multiple brushfires” and that will likely neglect what most needs to be addressed (p. 79).
An insight that I found particularly helpful has to do with the importance of simultaneously thinking of believers in terms of three categories: saint, sinner, and sufferer. The Christian’s fundamental identity is that of a regenerated, forgiven, and accepted child of God. Though sin’s power has been broken, sin’s presence remains, influencing our motives, thoughts, and actions. To varying degrees and in different ways, we are likewise sufferers by virtue of the fact that we have been sinned against, and we live in a fallen world. We tend to focus on one or perhaps two of these fronts when we seek to help fellow believers but doing so results in a truncated understanding of the person we’re trying to help as well as a failure to bring necessary truths to bear on a person’s life. “We use the Bible in multifaceted ways: (1) The Bible confirms the identity of the saint; (2) The Bible comforts the sufferer; and (3) The Bible confronts the sinner. Confirmation, comfort, and confrontation—all have a place in personal ministry, and the Scriptures function in all three modes” (p. 101).
A chapter called “Connecting the Stories,” offers a number of helpful guidelines for using Scripture in personal ministry and illustrates how application consists of bringing a passage’s meaning derived from its original and expanded (i.e., redemptive-historical) contexts into contact with a person’s particular situation. This is followed by three chapters in which Emlet illustrates what his redemptive-historical approach to counseling looks like with two case studies, using NT and OT “ditch” passages.
Years ago, a student graduating with a seminary degree in counseling lamented that she had learned a lot but was disappointed because she wasn’t taught how to actually use the Scriptures in the course of her ministry. Cross Talk is a valuable resource for such instruction. Who should read Cross Talk? Pastors who feel comfortable with biblical interpretation and sermonic delivery but less confident about their ability to map biblical truths onto the specifics of a person’s life in a one-on-one encounter will surely benefit as will Christian counselors desirous of being intentionally biblical in their theory and practice. However, it would, in my opinion, be a grievous error to think of Cross Talk as a volume reserved primarily for those serving in these vocations. The ministry of applying the gospel to each other’s lives is one to which every believer is called. Michael Emlet has made a rich and substantive contribution to equipping Christians toward that end.