Over the last week or so, I read Daniel Defoe’s novel (generally agreed to be the first English novel) Robinson Crusoe. The story of a shipwrecked man is familiar enough, but I suspect not a lot of people actually read it these days. For Christians, however, it is an interesting book for a lot of reasons. As a rebellious young man who refuses to take the good advice of his father and the clear guidance of God, Robinson is much like the prodigal son, heading out into the world only to be shipwrecked and presumed dead. A good chunk of the book deals with his journey toward not only wisdom, but also the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ. At one point he picks up a Bible he had salvaged from the ship when he first came ashore. Reading the Scripture, he encounters the Word of God as it pertains to him: he discovers himself a sinner, in desperate need of a spiritual deliverance even more important than his physical rescue from the island. He repents, calls on God, and his life is changed.
It is a moving conversion story. But then you realize something a bit bothersome. Robinson becomes a Christian, but his Christian life is a solitary one. It looks like the book espouses an ideal view of Christianity as life apart from people in relationship with God. He even says at one point that he doesn’t need to be rescued and brought back to society with people because he has God.
But in the Bible, the message all through is that we were made for each other as well as for God. “It is not good that the man should be alone,” God said when he looked at Adam. God is creating “a people for his name” according to Acts 15:14. To be in a right relationship with God necessarily means being in a right relationship with fellow-people.
Of course, Robinson Crusoe doesn’t have a choice. He’s all alone. He can’t very well create people to share life with. And if God can’t visit a lonely man marooned on an island he’s a much less powerful God than we are given to believe. But for a long part of the book it looks like Daniel Defoe, the author, may not notice that painting an idealized Christian life in the story of a man alone is a bit incongruous with the Bible’s own vision.
As the story proceeds, though, Robinson realizes what he’s missing too. He meets the great friend whom he names Friday (for the day of the week he saved the poor man from being eaten by cannibals who dropped by the island to have their meal). Eventually he converts him from paganism to Christianity. (“My man Friday was a Protestant” is one of the funniest lines in the book.) And they begin to discuss the faith.
In the course of their conversations, Robinson realizes that reading Scripture with someone else offers a different kind of benefit than merely reading it alone (though that remains vital):
I always applied myself to reading the Scripture, to let him know, as well as I could, the meaning of what I read; and he again, by his serious inquiries and questions, made me, as I said before, a much better scholar in the Scripture-knowledge than I should ever have been by my own private mere reading.
From personal experience, I can say that I have never failed to benefit from leading or taking part in a Bible study with others. The whole experience of sitting together–around a table at the church, on a sofa in a family room, or in chairs in an office–with a group of believers or inquirers to share what we see and hear in this wonderful Word God has given us, is not to be missed. Many people in the church do miss it. But there is no greater encouragement to dig deeper in the faith for yourself than spending some time digging in with others.