My Beef With The (way we talk about the) Bible
First, I need to say that I love the Bible. I read it almost daily. I love the nuance, the poetic nature, the wide range of how to talk about God and life and community and humanity. I love that it spans thousands of years and charts right along with the evolution of human consciousness and morality. I am especially drawn to the opening chapters of Genesis, the Psalms, minor prophets, and all the gospels. Weave together poetry, story, and metaphor to address the Deep Questions, and I am all in!
I love the Bible.
But lately I recoil when the subject of scripture comes up. What I have discovered is that my beef isn’t with the Bible itself, but with the way we talk about it.
We come at the Bible today with a modern view and understanding of what it is and what it does, which is fine because that’s what every generation has done. In fact, the Bible chronicles this.
My problem is with the way we talk about the Bible as though our understanding of it is the way it has always been. As though a 21st-century, Western, Democratic, Capitalistic worldview is the only lens through which scripture has ever been read. We make great proclamations that Biblical knowledge is foundational to a meaningful Christian practice even though that’s historically inaccurate.
For instance, this quote floated around for a while on social media and I recently saw it again the other day:
"When cultists come to my door, I often point out that they take passages out of context. To prove my charge, I ask them to state the historical setting, main theme, and basic structure of just one of the sixty-six books of the Bible...Could you do it? If the answer is no, you should ask yourself whether your approach to the Bible is adequate. I fear that our inaccurate emphasis on the Holy Spirit's role in understanding Scripture has become an easy shortcut to the hard work of building a personal library of study tools and using them." -JP Moreland
I have a degree in Christian Ministry from a Bible college, so I support any argument that endorses Biblical literacy and broader context. And I come from a fundamentalist background, so I sympathize with any argument that downplays the Holy Spirit.
But this approach is not a universal way to interact with scripture. It’s rooted in our modern prioritization of facts over mystery, evidence over experience.
Also, the quote - and the prioritization of Biblical literacy - would have been preposterous to the people who originally heard the stories and writings of scripture.
Let’s take the letters of Paul, for example. Thirteen of the New Testament’s 27 manuscripts are letters authored by - or at least credited to - Paul. All but one of these letters (Romans) was written in response to either a question from the church to whom it’s addressed, or as a follow-up from a previous visit. They all address issues specific to those churches; issues we cannot fully know because we weren’t there.
As is often said, reading Paul’s letters is like reading someone else’s mail. In fact, that’s exactly what it is.
But that’s not all. Here are four of the factors that separate the modern Bible reader from those who originally read (or heard) its words.
First, most people couldn’t read.
Literacy was only for the most privileged in Roman society. Churches at the time were made up of people from all walks of life, but one thing most of them shared in common was the fact that they were illiterate. So, when a letter arrived from Paul, a literate person in the congregation probably read it aloud during one of their gatherings. After it was read, it may have been copied by someone in the church and then passed along to another nearby group of Christ followers.
Nobody who followed Jesus around the desert or participated in one of Paul’s urban church’s had a copy of the New Testament. Even if they did, it would have been useless since they couldn’t read. Yet they were called disciples and practiced the Christian faith with devout reverence.
If preachers in the first century preached that Biblical knowledge is essential for Christian discipleship, 95% of the early church would not have qualified.
Second, the printing press did not exist.
Even for those who could read, until the advent of the printing press, there was limited access to documents and manuscripts. Today, we walk into any Christian bookstore and take our pick of Bibles according to interpretation, size, binding, color, theme, age, and content. Access to scripture has elevated the Bible in the faith practice of modern Christians. Biblical literacy is not a bad thing, but, historically, it is a very new thing.
We can get a Bible for fifty bucks or less, but the reproduction of something like a single letter was rare and expensive in the days scripture was originally written. Any recorded material had to be written by hand by a literate person. So it’s not like the people of Corinth all got a nice, bound copy of 2 Corinthians on their way out of the sanctuary at church one Sunday. They didn’t take it home in order to read a few lines during their morning quiet time. They didn’t exegete each phrase or cross-reference it with another letter to establish a proper hermeneutic for teaching others about Jesus. It was made into zero tattoos.
They most likely heard it read, and then moved on with their lives as a faith community.
Because at the end of the day, learning how to live like the people of God was of much greater importance than Biblical knowledge. The gospels and the writings of Paul and other apostles that we have in our New Testament were all written to show 1st century readers what it means to live like the people of God in light of who Jesus was and what God had done through him.
Third, we lack a Jewish context for understanding what scripture is.
The Jewish tradition - from which all scripture is born - was to rely heavily on how rabbi’s and other leaders interpreted the texts for today. Midrash - the collection of rabbinic commentaries on Jewish texts - is just as authoritative as scripture itself. Why? Because what use is scripture if it has nothing to say today?
Paul often referenced the Old Testament. But his references, in their original context, rarely seem connected to the point he’s using them to support. If Paul pulled that crap in a New Testament exegesis class in seminary, he’d be reprimanded and docked for taking liberties with the original meaning of the texts. But he was used to hearing and using the ancient Hebrew scriptures in a way that fit into his modern context, whether or not it was how the original writing was to be interpreted. This is the opposite of what most Christians today are taught to do.
But scripture - if it is truly living and active - speaks to the time and place in which it’s read. That’s why Paul wrote to Timothy that all scripture is God-breathed and useful. Useful is probably my favorite way to describe the Bible. It guides us as we figure out what God is up to now, and what it means now to be His people.
Fourth, we lack discernment over which scriptures are relevant and which ones are not.
Yes, you read that correctly. I believe some parts of scripture matter today and some simply don’t.
I already know what my conservative friends think: Cory just wants to make the Bible say whatever he wants so he can live whatever kind of life he chooses without regard for God and his Laws.
But stay with me. Here’s a simple example of what I mean:
Take all the passages about slaves in both the Old and New Testaments. Can you imagine a group of Christians going to a place like southern Asia to minister to girls caught up in the sex industry, and encouraging them with the words of Paul to the Ephesians:
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.”
Seriously. Imagine reading that passage to a young girl who is routinely forced to have sex with grown men. Or to a woman who gets beaten by her boss if she fails to make enough bricks. Or to a man captured and forced to work in an ISIS prison camp because his beard is too short, not knowing if he’ll get out alive.
We disregard this verse about slavery because human morality has evolved since those words were written. Asking slaves to obey their masters is revolting. If someone launched a campaign to Make Slaves Obedient Again, just about all of us would fight it, and we sure wouldn’t allow it to be connected to the Christian faith.
Yes, those words are in the Bible. But, in the spirit of how scripture has always been used, we need to discern what is and is not relevant in our modern context.
WHAT IS THE BIBLE FOR, THEN?
If the Bible is not simply a vehicle that transmits knowledge from God’s brain to ours, what, then, is it for?
I believe the Bible is an evolving expression of how we talk about God, and how we talk about what it means to be the people of God now.
The story of Jonah is, to me, the perfect illustration.
The Jewish people were held in exile by the Assyrians. In the book of Nahum, there’s a lot of talk about how God would destroy the Assyrians and, specifically, those in the capital city of Nineveh.
But, one day, the people were set free from exile and returned to their home. Yet, despite the promises in Nahum, Nineveh was not destroyed.
How were the people supposed to understand this? The God they followed, though his prophet Nahum, promised to destroy their enemies, the Ninevites. But then he didn’t.
As you know, God told Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach a message of repentance. He didn’t want to because he believed that if he did, God would be his typical compassionate self and refuse to destroy them.
So he ran.
He went the opposite direction from Nineveh, but God sent a storm on the sea that got him thrown overboard and swallowed by a fish and spat out back on the shore he started from. He finally agreed to obey and went to Nineveh.
Sure enough, the Ninevites repented and God spared the city. The story ends with Jonah furious about this gracious, compassionate action from God.
Jonah is told post-exile, after the people return home and Nineveh goes on existing as usual. Perhaps the people told this story to explain why their all-powerful God refused to destroy their enemy. If exile had ended as God promised, yet the Ninevites were still living, it could only mean that God, in his great mercy, relented. We see this especially in Jonah’s prayer in the belly of the fish (which is portions of 3 psalms strung together), and then again in chapter 4 when he confesses that God’s lack of anger and abounding love are the whole reason for his debacle. Ultimately, Jonah found it very difficult to contend with the fact that God forgave the evil empire of Assyria.
But, if that’s what God is like, how, then, should his people live? Should they go on hating the Ninevites and wish them harm, like Jonah did?
No! In light of this new development, belonging to the people of God means loving even our enemies, as God does.
If you read scripture chronologically, it often shifts streams in this way when things go in an unexpected direction. The people expand how they speak of God in order to conform to the events going on in the world around them. That’s a healthy and historically accurate way of interacting with scripture. Refusing to expand how we talk about God in spite of what we see around us is an unhealthy and potentially destructive way of interacting with scripture.
Scripture has survived because the people of God allow it room to breathe, to expand, to be relevant generation after generation.
I’d love to see the modern American Church do the same.