I was raised in the “no Bible, no breakfast” version of Christianity. In said version, one was to start their day with the Bible and yellow highlighter firmly in hand, long before any other of the day’s events could potentially be sanctified. It was assumed that the highest and best usage of the Bible was to stuff yourself with it daily, memorize it, and cross stitch it onto your walls. I was an AWANA kid (In the original King James of course… long before the travesty of switching to the NIV.) and relished in the receipt of my first gold-leafed, leather-bound study Bible. All this to say, the Bible has been the central feature of my personal faith journey for all my life.
In those days, we were led to believe that the authors where literal scribes, taking down word for word the revelation of God. Yes, in the back of our minds we knew that this transcription was in some ancient tongue, but the KJV (and eventually the NIV) were close enough (if not very real improvements, in the minds of some.) This transcription fallacy—unbeknownst to anyone at the time—was the Bible’s push down the slippery slope to its near irrelevance.
I was there in the 80s and 90s as the rise of Billy Graham, Robert Schuller and others had instilled an evangelistic fervor in the hearts of local pastors who now felt that the Bible must not just educate people but move people (out of their seats if we’d done it right.) Weekly altar calls became the norm. The traditional form of preaching (by going through the text verse-by-verse) went swiftly out-of-vogue, as the evangelical movement and the self-help movement merged into one, where the Bible became an all-powerful trump card in the never-ending project of self-improvement.
Not long after, the NIV gave way to The Message, a beautifully-crafted modern retelling of the Bible texts. Impossible to call it a translation, America’s pastor, Eugene Peterson, (quite unintentionally I believe) gave American Christians the ultimate license to do what we would prefer to do: forget the Bible’s ancient origins at all, and find some well-crafted turns of phrase to put on our screen saver.
The Message preached. It was easier to get to the punchline in a twenty-minute sermon and it didn’t get in the way of pithy anecdotes. While I have loved and been served by the great intellectual work of Eugene Peterson, one cannot underestimate the side effect of his most famous product. In the arrival of The Message, the sound bites available to us were so tantalizing, so modernly crafted, we didn’t really need the text at all.
What were once Bible studies became “small groups” and if the Bible was present in these discussions at all, it was a brief reading of a few verses before we moved on to the important stuff of analyzing our lives. The typical times around the Bible in churches became an experience of listening to 7-8 others announce, “what I think it means to me,” with absolutely no thought whatsoever to what it actually means.
A Bible-less Christianity
Christianity has never been a religion of the book (thank God). It is not really a religion at all, in the traditional sense, as the way of Jesus was laid out as a liberation from the rules, restrictions and walls which were used by religion to keep the insiders in and the outsiders out. Holy books of the monotheistic religions are treated as the highest revelation of God’s intent.
Not so with the Jesus Way.
The primary revelation of the Gospel is not the book that tells its story, it is Jesus. We know what God looks like not when we look at the Bible, but when we look at Jesus.
The Bible then is a slope-sided lens which comes to its focal point at the cross. Jesus’ life, death, burial and resurrection are the ultimate revelation of who God is and what God is like. It is also the ultimate revelation of what it means to be human. The merger of these two ideas is called the incarnation—a theological concept with no parallel in any other spirituality.
How do I know this? The Bible. That is the great irony. While the Bible is not our most clear place to see God, we are deeply challenged to see God clearly without it. But given the history written above, I am not likely talking about the Bible as you have known it.
If you have been a participant in the American Christian religion in the last 30 years, you likely are more familiar with the Bible as prooftext, as quotation, as inspirational anecdote, as feel-good story. You are accustomed to a truncated and neutered text, made innocuous for easy and quick application so we can all go get on with our lives.
With such a view of the text (which has become the broad norm), it is impossible to find the convex shape of human aspiration, human suffering and human redemption, captured first in the Israel experience (the Old Testament) and then brought to ultimate clarity in the life of Jesus (the Gospels and the correspondence which followed). It is impossible—I would argue—to be awakened to the Gospel itself, a revelation of God’s loving claim on every human life, until we see the Bible on its own terms.
We must acknowledge how far away from the Bible we really are. A book which was primarily written to Jews and the ancient Israelites which preceded them. A book which unapologetically absorbs and utilizes all of the cultural assumptions of its time: pre-modern “science”, non-western family views, a pantheon of heavenly gods and monsters, tribal politics, Middle-Eastern social customs, all through the lens of an apocalyptic and mythological journalism which is only used in fiction material today.
To find the liberating Jesus at the center of the maze (and in doing so to find our heart, our purpose, our redemption and our social vision) we must first get into the text on its own terms, submit to its rules and assumptions, and cease to demand that it succumb to ours.
We must meander around inside of it with humble curiosity, and without a hint of religious tourism. We are not here in Genesis or 2 Kings or Habakkuk or Luke or Ephesians to find trinkets to put on our mantel. We are here to be immersed in a world and view so far from our own as to dare to be changed by it, hopefully irrevocably so.
When I consider how brutally and cavalierly we are treating the text, it all resonates with the history of Western religion. While we have refined our methods of jumping into other lands and converting them to our social customs, our natural hegemony hasn’t changed, and our ability to understand and engage Scripture is all the worse for it.
The Western church spent the better part of centuries inflicting literal violence on the Middle East (the Crusades) in order to impose our cultural religion on them. While social acceptance for beheadings and burning people at the stake has waned, we continue to take the text of the “Holy Land” and treat it like colonial lands to conquer.
We want it to sound like us.
Use our metaphors.
Embrace our science.
And—of course—apply to our lives.
But it is critical to understand that the text that Western Christianity ostensibly venerates so highly was not written to you and is only marginally for you. It demands that you should come to it, not that it should come to you. While we can be confident that the sweet Spirit of God is drawing close to us as our every breath, we can be equally confident that the written word of God is miles-distant from us by centuries and cultures.
Every translation is an act of interpretation. Every splice of the text (pulling a verse or two out for your preference) is an act of meaning-making. And with every attempt to put it into our vernacular and our cultural framework, we set ideological fire to it not so different than the crusades of so long ago.
Most uses of the Bible in today’s Christianity are little more than spiritual colonialism… we are taking our powerful cultural forces, crossing the boundaries of the text, and making it become more like us, live under our rule. Taxation of the Scripture without representation of its deeper truths.
The text must be understood on ITS terms, and not OURS. It is not likely a book that you can pick up and read and apply immediately to your life (Decades of quiet-time admonitions not-withstanding.) The impulse to apply it to your life is in direct conflict with the impulse to understand it, submit to it, and do the terrifying work of letting it speak on its own terms.
Will you have to delve into that confusing world of translations and research and cultural history and context and literary criticism? YES. Will you have to acknowledge the lack of skills your western education has provided for such a task? YES. Will you be served by reading books that feel “academic” and you won’t know how they make your life better tomorrow? HELL, YES. Will you often feel dazed, confused, outside your own skin, and swimming in waters so unfamiliar you don’t know where the landmarks or even land are? YES.
It will feel remarkably like losing your life to find it, which is about the only way to understand the Gospel anyway, Bible or no Bible. It is clear to me that our unreflective engagement of the text is a symptom of our deeper spiritual sickness: we are in search of a solution-oriented spirituality (how very American of us) instead of a person-oriented spirituality. If you married your spouse so that he/she would immediately make your life easier: do some chores, split the mortgage, lower your taxes, then you are likely to have a really shitty marriage. With hope, a marriage stands on a deep love for a strange other person, and the worthwhile reinvention that love requires.
So it is with our spirituality and so it is with our Scripture, if you are coming to it so that the practicalities of your life get a quick and applicable lift. Engaging to manage your finances better, make life a little easier, soften the load? Well, you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit: A distorted spirituality and an unchanged life.
I am calling us to more. More slowness, more curiosity, more humility. More standards for our bearers of Biblical teaching on Sunday mornings. More expectation for their research, their own understanding and their efficacy. We need more. Our spirituality of shortcuts has not only underserved us, it has starved us and led us to believe that French fries are food and self-help speeches are sermons.
We can do better and we must. And we can do it together.
For Part 1 of the blog series on studying Scripture check out: "How to Trust a Sermon."