“Well, then how do I know what’s true and what’s not!? Why would God give us a book we can’t understand!?” He all but threw the questions out in sheer frustration. The book may be less than clear sometimes but his feelings were obvious and understandable. Having been raised in the church with all the classic stories and some pretty harsh edicts for the consequences of unbelief, his perspective has been that the bible had to be 100% true in the form he had been taught or it was completely false.
And so began our conversation about what the bible really is. It wasn’t to assure him that his perspective was correct or to throw out everything he had been taught. The conversation revolved around how he thinks about the bible and what expectations we, as westerners, tend to bring with us when we talk about it. Dismantling our mistaken thoughts and expectations is the best (if not an uncomfortable) place to start.
Not a textbook
First, it is not a western textbook. The authors (yes, plural) did not write with the scientific method or our Greek-philosophical inspired thought process in mind. They wrote to their audience, in their time and culture, using their language. Consequently, we cannot pick up our English translations and read the words as if they were written expressly to us in our time and for our ways of thinking. Which feels a bit like poor planning on the part of an all-knowing eternal God, unless you consider the second point.
Second, it was not written for solitary consumption. There are some books that are best read completely alone, in a cozy corner, with warm light and a grey rain (at least that’s the PNW ideal). But the bible wasn’t written in that way or for that purpose. The earliest parts of the bible were created as part of an oral tradition shared between generations in familial settings (Deuteronomy 6:7) and worship gatherings (Nehemiah 8:2-8, Luke 4:15-33, Acts 16:12-13). In short, the bible was created within and for community. The idea that we can each pick up our own bible, read a couple of verses a day, and really learn and understand it is – frankly, ridiculous. The bible is a rich, complex, literary master-work and we do better when we set aside our ideas of cartoon kids’ stories and a bunch of rules…which leads to the third (and for today, final) point.
A cohesive narrative
The bible is not a rule book with stories we should copy-paste over our own actions and choices. Really. Please don’t indiscriminately copy the behavior of biblical characters. Not even the “heroes” because there are a scant few genuine heroes to be found. King David, the brave youngest son who was called, “A man after God’s own heart” (I Samuel 13:14 & Acts 13:22) was also an adulterer and murderer. And Jonah, we all know he was a little rebellious until his ride in the big fish. In reality, he was a racist and nationalist who ran to avoid benefitting his enemy. Rethinking the view of the bible as a set of rules with good guys and bad guys is critical if you want to understand its true narrative.
The beauty of these three realities is that the bible isn’t the book you thought, which is a perfect invitation to discover what it really says. Promise, it’s as relevant and it is real.