Have you ever been embarrassed by something in the Bible?
Or wished the Bible just left some stuff out?
And I’m not talking about a hard teaching on money or a convicting verse about orphans and widows, but one of those passages that makes you pause and go
Like, you’re chugging along on your ReadTheBibleInAYear Devotional Plan, and you come across a verse that says it’s okay for parents to stone their children if they disrespect them, or you read a story where the good guys chop up a prostitute and mail her body parts around to rally the twelve tribes of Israel.
So you skip ahead to the New Testament and hope your non-Christian friends don’t stumble across those weird Old Testament passages but then you reach the part in 1 Corinthians where Paul says that women should keep their mouths shut in church and you’re like
The Problem is Us
I believe a lot of us have a hard time reading the Bible because we were never taught how to read the Bible. Or, more specifically, we were only taught one way to read it.
We’re often taught to treat the Bible as a one-size-fits-all science/history/self-help textbook that was downloaded from Heaven and contains all the answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything.
This may look like faith on the surface, but at its root, it’s really about the fear of losing control.
I can say that with confidence because this is my story.
Listening to a sermon on Sunday morning was fine and dandy, but reading the Bible on my own time was confusing, stressful, and, to be honest, a little dull.
The Bible – especially the Old Testament – was like this big book full of weird laws, incompatible history, bad science, and way too much free-verse poetry. But the Bible was tangible. It was the only part of my faith I could physically touch, so I had to swallow my doubts and learn how to defend the Scriptures from secular attack.
And so that’s what I did. I read all the apologetics books, listened to all the podcasts, and watched all the debates on YouTube I could find.
But the deeper I dived into that well, the more I discovered the Bible has so much you have to defend. And the arguments in its defense began to increasingly rely on cheap rhetorical tricks or outdated and debunked science.
It began to change the way I read the Bible and view people. Everything I watched or read was more concerned with scoring points, acquiring knowledge or converting souls than it was with expressing Jesus’s love to others.
It made me a theological bully. It made me mean.
And like most bullies, it was rooted in insecurity, fear, and inadequacy. And, like so many, I burned out, swallowed by my doubt and bitterness.
It took me awhile to pick up the Bible again. But when I did, everything changed.
The moment I stopped trying “defend the integrity of Scripture” and started reading the Bible to simply learn how God moves through His people was the moment the Bible actually started to come alive in my life.
Or maybe you have a different relationship with the Bible. Maybe you’ve been told it’s “God’s Instruction Manuel for Your Life” or (my personal favorite) “God’s Love Letter to You.”
But now you’re burned out because it sure does contain a lot more ritualistic animal sacrifice than any love letter you’ve ever received, and it includes way more instructions on how to build a big tent than it does about which career path you should choose.
When we put the Bible in a box, we limit its power to transform our lives. We want it to behave like a normal book, but it’s not a normal book. And every time we try to force the Bible into another box, it’ll always bite back just to let you know it’s not that kind of book.
So, for the next ten minutes (the estimated amount of the time it’ll take to read this article) let’s take the Bible out of whatever box we’ve placed it in.
The box will still be there when we get done, but I don’t think you’ll want it anymore.
The Bible is a library (in Greek “Byblos”) of books that span multiple centuries and literary genres. It contains poetry, letters, folk songs, genealogies, parables, wisdom literature, prophecies, laws, and historical narrative.
The Bible was written in Hebrew, Greek, and a smattering of Aramaic – ancient languages that were spoken long before the invention of English. Passages of the Bible were passed down through oral tradition, written on papyrus or animal skin, transcribed onto scrolls, or composed of parchment. And then it all had to be translated.
The Bible wasn’t written by God, but by a diverse group of kings, prophets, disciples, shepherds, songwriters, and historians who were divinely inspired – not divinely dictated – by God over a time span of about 1,500 years.
The perspectives of the Biblical authors were shaped by their life experiences, political environment, and cultural landscape. And sometimes the authors are honest about their intentions. At its core, the Bible is dynamic literature and history. Therefore, the Bible should be read literarily before we seek to apply it literally (please note the distinction).
Some pages of the Bible crackle with wit and humor. Others fume with righteous anger. And in a few places, it’s charged with erotic tension (in the original Hebrew, the Song of Solomon was considered so sexually explicit, Jewish boys were forbidden from reading it until they were 13 or older).
The Bible can also be very confusing. It’s a book that can tell you not to argue with fools, and then literally in the next verse appear to contradict itself (an example of Hebrew parallelism). And on one hand, it can lament that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer, while on the other proclaim the wicked suffer and the righteous prosper.
We need to remember the Bible isn’t a collection of verses that are meant to be read in isolation to one another (chapter and verse numbers weren’t even added to the text until the 13th Century), but a kaleidoscope of voices unified through one overarching narrative over a period of nearly two thousand years as a people group grappled with their cultural history and experiences with the Divine.
I made someone pretty upset a couple of months ago when I suggested the Bible is defined and shaped by historical and cultural context.
He considered that statement borderline blasphemous and questioned whether or not I could actually call myself a Christian with such a limited view of scripture.
But if we plan on taking the Bible literally without cultural context, then we better be prepared to make some drastic changes.
For one specific example, our Christian women shouldn’t expose their hair in church.
However, if we examine these passages of Paul’s letters to the Corinth church from a cultural perspective, we begin to understand the purpose behind Paul’s seemingly archaic and misogynistic instructions.
For a lot of Roman citizens, “going to a worship service” and “going to an orgy” were virtually synonymous – especially in the port city of Corinth which was overrun with pagan temples. And the Greco-Roman culture had a weird thing about a woman’s hair (basically, it was physically connected to her reproductive system). A woman going to church with her hair down would be the modern-day equivalent of walking into church with her pubic region fully exposed.
Another dangerous way reading Scripture is taking the “Me-Centric” approach. This approach forgoes all context and reduces the Bible to a pithy collection of encouraging statements.
For example, when I graduated high school I received a ton of gifts with Jeremiah 29:11 embossed on them. The only problem is Jeremiah 29:11 wasn’t written for graduating high school seniors. It was written for the Israelites while they were in exile and at the mercy of the Babylonian empire.
Jeremiah 29:11 isn’t about you. It’s about God promising the Israelites a future hope and redemption.
When we open the Bible to a particular passage, think critically and ask these questions: Who is the author? Who was it written to? What was its purpose? What does this passage tell me about the nature of God? And (finally) what does this passage mean for me?
A Dangerous Book
The Bible wasn’t written in a vacuum and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
But if we treat it like it was written and assembled outside of time and space, the Bible can become a very dangerous book.
There are some people who believe “loving your neighbor” means waving a sign that declares “God Hates Fags” in big block letters. Others throw bombs into abortion clinics. On their website, the Ku Klux Klan says the flaming cross “symbolizes the Light of Christ dispelling ignorance and darkness.”
It’s no secret that the Bible has been used to commit some pretty heinous crimes and injustices throughout history. In the 1960s, some of the staunchest support for segregation came from small-town Southern Baptist Churches.
In the book of Romans, Paul says that “God has poured his love into us through his Holy Spirit.” Did you get that? The love of God is coursing through your veins.
And what is God’s love if not poured out for others?
Biblical convictions compelled William Wilberforce to spearhead the abolition movement to oppose the British slave trade in the early 1800s.
In the late 1930s, when Adolf Hitler manipulated the church and used the writings of Martin Luther to increase the influence of the Third Reich, small pockets of Christians (like Corrie Ten Boom and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) would not be swayed and stood in the gap for their Jewish neighbors.
Reading the Bible doesn’t make you a good person. You can be well-versed in Scripture and still be racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic and violent.
Like all great texts, the Bible reads its audience. Your interpretation of a specific Scripture or the way you may use a specific text to justify your worldview may say more about you than it does about God or the Bible.
In the heat of the moment (especially when we’re scared or angry), bad theology can look like good logic.
The Simple News
Jesus’s call was a simple one.
“Come, and follow me.”
The Greek word for “follow is akoloutheō. In the original context, the meaning is (of course) much broader and inclusive than simply “tag along with me.”
In Greek, the word reads more fully as “to accompany” and “assist.”
Jesus wasn’t calling his original disciples to follow in order to observe him. He was inviting his disciples to accompany and be a part of his journey.
Whether he’s talking with a divorced Samaritan woman, eating with tax collectors, stepping up for prostitutes, or placing uneducated fishermen within his inner circle, Jesus was always breaking down walls and broadening the scope of the Kingdom of Heaven.
He was constantly inviting people into His story.
The Bible is a lot like that.
It doesn’t want to be read like a morality play or instructional manual or self-help guide or science textbook. The Bible desires to be explored and debated and wrestled with and mused on and cross referenced and related to and mediated over and prayed about and discussed with other seekers and doubters.
The Bible doesn’t need to be defended. It needs to be lived.
Embrace the Mystery
All of this doesn’t mean I have the Bible ‘figured out.’ I don’t think it’s possible to figure it out (and be suspicious of anyone who says that they do).
For the life of me, I have no idea what is going on at the end of 1 Samuel when the Witch of Endor (shockingly not a Lord of the Rings/Star Wars crossover character) summons the dead prophet Samuel’s spirit from the shadowy Jewish underworld at the request of King Saul.
I mean, like, what is going on here?
The Bible should inspire humility in its readers. We shouldn’t approach it with the expectation of how God will speak, but with the knowledge that He will (or has already spoken).
I think this is why we can pass over a passage or verse or parable for years and it not mean a thing to us and then one day out of the blue you read over it and it suddenly becomes of the most fascinating and life-altering bits of prose you’ve ever read and you can’t understand why you never noticed how beautiful and soul-piercing it was before and that’s all because you’re not the same person.
Your relationship with God is evolving.
And that’s nothing to be afraid of.
So take the Bible out of whatever box you’ve put it in, and give it a little room to breathe.
Make space in your heart for Scripture challenge you and embolden you and inspire you and convict you and speak to you and transform you and then let it compel you to share this love and joy with other people.
And be done with that box.
Addendum: The Neverending Story
Once again, the great British theologian and writer of books about talking lions, C.S. Lewis says in a single quote what took me 2,000 words to write:
The total result is not ‘the Word of God in the sense that every passage, in itself gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God; and we (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia…but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.”
I once heard someone joke that in the American church, the Trinity is “God, Jesus, and the Holy Bible.”
The Bible is a story of cultural progress and redemption that began with a small tribe in the Middle East and then widened to include the entire world through the arrival of Jesus.
And one of the biggest mistakes we can make about this story is believing that the story is over.
The story is continuing in you and through you.
The Bible is an invitation to lose yourself in the story God is telling.
It’s an invitation to wrestle with God like Jacob in Genesis.
It’s an invitation to cry out to God in pain and anguish like David in the Psalms.
It’s an invitation to accompany Jesus on his journey even though you’re not really sure where you’re going.
And it’s an invitation to die to yourself and pour yourself out in love and service to others, even if they don’t look like you or believe the same thing as you or can give you anything back in return.
It’s an invitation into a story that was unfolding long before you were born and will continue long after you are gone.
Go in peace and kindness, my friends.