Culture At Large

Dear Abby and Jesus as advice columnist

Caryn Rivadeneira

Though I confess to not having thought about her in years, as I read the obituary for Pauline Phillips - a.k.a. “Dear Abby” – I quickly recalled a time when thoughts of her work were on my mind often. These were the days when I was a brand-new editor at Marriage Partnership magazine and a good chunk of my job entailed sifting through letters from readers and deciding which questions to pass on to our advice columnists. Since our magazine ran a regular relationship column, as well as a spicier and dicier sex-advice column, the questions ran from the run-of-the-mill to the eye-popping.

Though I wasn’t the one dishing out the advice, something about being so up close and personal with these deep longings and curiosities of strangers’ souls (and libidos) made me think about the Dear Abbys and Ann Landers of the world - and the rather weighty mantels on their shoulders. Offering advice to desperate people who have nowhere else to turn is no small thing.

This is especially true when those desperate people are Christian people. Christian people who may be ashamed to step forward. Christian people who have often been told that when their hearts, minds or loins burn with questions, they need not look further than the Good Book or the Great Advice Columnist in the Sky. That the answers to all of life’s questions were found in none other than The Word and the life of Jesus Christ.

Though there might have been a time or two in my life that I believed this, even by my mid-twenties - freshly minted in the “real world” and just trying out my new big-girl faith for size - I knew this thing we tell folks about the Bible having all the answers wasn’t quite right. Certainly reading through e-mail after e-mail from people wondering if sex toys should play a role (pun intended) in Christian marriages makes you think having trusted advice givers for all of life’s questions should be something Christians hold dear.

Even when He does offer advice, let’s face it: Jesus is no Dear Abby.

After all, I’m pretty sure Jesus never talked about sex toys in marriage (although perhaps Leviticus tackles this one). Jesus also didn’t talk about plenty of other issues. Let’s be honest here: Life - even the Christian life - presents all sorts of questions to which the Jesus of the Bible does not have answers.

Jesus never once said how much we should contribute to our 401(k)s. Solomon didn’t even tackle this! And Jesus didn’t say a whole lot about what you should major in or if you should maybe start looking for that new job. Though Jesus does tell us how to pray, He does not in fact say which denomination you should pray in.

Even when He does offer advice, let’s face it: Jesus is no Dear Abby. Instead of answering a question with well-researched and time-tested wisdom, He doodled in the sand or told parables. Instead of leaving folks nodding along thinking, “That makes sense,” He left crowds scratching their heads. Paul and Peter and James would carry on this tradition. Though their instructions were more direct, millennia after they shared their advice, a turn to the Scriptures can still leave us with more questions than answers. About how we worship, for instance, and who leads it.

And yet the very baffling nature of Scriptural “advice” is also its beauty. Especially for those of us who do not consider the Bible to be merely a book of instructions on how to live, but instead a book intended to draw us closer to God. When we understand that part of how God would have us live is to seek wisdom from others, we understand more and more of the value of going to trusted, wise souls for advice. And perhaps why we long for this.

In fact, in the years since I’ve moved from a sifter of questions to an asker of them, I’ve realized this: that maybe Jesus didn’t leave us with answers to every last question we’ll ever have because, to God, seeking truth and wisdom - from the Holy Spirit, from the Scriptures, from the life of Jesus and from one another - is one of the great gifts of life.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, The Bible, News & Politics, Social Trends