November 18, 2017

Another Look: How the Bible Works in Our Lives Today

Baptistry, Chapel of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University

Baptistry, Chapel of the Resurrection, Valparaiso University

Today we take another look at a post from 2013 about how I think Scripture “works” in our lives today — we who live so far removed from the events it records and who live in a vastly different time and culture.

• • •

First of all, we must be willing to recognize that anyone who begins to take Scripture seriously is immediately immersed in historical questions and questions about the nature of the Bible itself.

In the churches and groups where I’ve been (primarily evangelical/fundamentalist), I don’t think this has been appreciated. Very little thought was ever given to how we came to have the Bible, how and when it was composed and edited, who the audiences were that first received the sacred writings, and how the various parts of the Bible carry on conversations with each other, reflecting diversity and development in the biblical message.

My experiences have led me to lament the Biblical illiteracy of our congregations, and that includes a lack of the most basic understanding of what kind of book the Bible is and isn’t. Most conservative evangelicals have a simplistic Sunday School grasp on the nature of Scripture. It is God’s Word, end of story, and so it is approached with kid gloves, as though saying “God said it” is enough. As though God merely dropped it from heaven. As though every page and every story and poem was not forged in the blood, sweat, and tears of people who believed but needed help for their unbelief. As though the Bible has no human backstory that brought it to us. As though we could merely dust off its historical and cultural and literary characteristics and discover a purely divine message shining beneath.

Out of this naïveté, we fail to appreciate the diversity of genres in Scripture and go on to read its apocalyptic literature and poetry with the same literalistic mindset as when reading its historical narratives. We think anything resembling historical narrative must be always and only the actual reporting of events, and have little patience for anyone who suggests some of these might be folk tales or stories designed to make us think, laugh, or engage in discussion with one another. We flatten Scripture and fail to recognize the progress of revelation and the fact that some Scriptures are more significant than others in contributing to the overall message.

I’m not saying every church ought to be like a seminary, and every Christian an expert in historical criticism, rhetorical criticism, literary theory, Ancient Near East history, Second Temple Judaism, life in the Greco-Roman world, and the traditions of interpretation throughout church history. However, our pastors and teachers ought to be acquainted with such matters and engaged in continuing education about them, and the church must learn not to be afraid of any learning that helps us understand the people, events, and backgrounds of the biblical story better, even if we end up being forced to reexamine some of our long held pet interpretations.

This is only one level of engaging Scripture, however, and for the vast majority of Christians, exposure to such robust and well-informed biblical and theological study will have to come through their teachers and pastors. For their part, the church’s teachers should have as one of their goals making this kind of instruction accessible, attractive, understandable, and applicable to life so that believers can move beyond a Sunday School perspective on Scripture.

My own life, for example, has been enriched immeasurably by coming to understand more about the nature of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). Knowing that it was gathered, compiled, at least partially composed, edited, and put together after the Exile in Babylon by people who were trying to come to grips with their identity before God and in the world after having suffered such devastation has opened up a multitude of new insights for me. The Bible has a human backstory — it is not just divine truth dropped from heaven.

And I think this is where we can make a statement about how the Bible is designed to “work” in our lives.

  • If we take the life-settings of Scripture, the contexts in which people have witnessed to God acting in the past, seriously…
  • And if we take the authors and compilers and editors of Scripture seriously, recognizing that they worked in specific settings for particular purposes, to bring a word from God to people who needed to hear it in their context…
  • Then, we will recognize that the Bible is not a theological textbook characterized primarily by propositional doctrines and ethical instructions written to a universal audience, but a long family story, a narrative about particular people over time, in particular times and places, who experienced God in the midst of their lives and communities.
  • This means that the Bible was not written to us directly, but it was written for us, for all who are part of God’s family and those to whom we witness. This is our family story. It has been given as a means of shaping our identity and forming our lives in the world.

The Bible “works” in our lives when, through an ongoing process of understanding, internalizing, and contemplating our family story, we embrace our identity as God’s people and seek to live out the family identity in our own time and place.

  • The main way in which we approach the Bible, then, is not as students, but as heirs together.
  • The main way we look at the Bible is as a living ancestral record, a story which is continuing in our lives.
  • The main tools we use are meditation, imagination, prayer and contemplation, discussion, and commemoration.
  • Churches are called to build the life of the community around an ongoing immersion in the story.

There may be other ways of doing this, but I’ve found nothing better than being part of a congregation that keeps the annual liturgical calendar with a variety of celebrations and customs, following lectionaries and other guides to Scripture, marking the daily hours of prayer and praying the Psalms, using contemplative Bible reading practices such as lectio divina, and participating in liturgical worship that dramatizes Christ and the Gospel every Sunday in words and sacred actions.

The Bible “works” best when we access it in a “family” way.

Comments

  1. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Most conservative evangelicals have a simplistic Sunday School grasp on the nature of Scripture. It is God’s Word, end of story, and so it is approached with kid gloves, as though saying “God said it” is enough. As though God merely dropped it from heaven. As though every page and every story and poem was not forged in the blood, sweat, and tears of people who believed but needed help for their unbelief. As though the Bible has no human backstory that brought it to us.

    As if it had the backstory and origin story of the Koran.

  2. This series is basically about hermeneutics, a five dollar word hard to make change with. It may be impossible to understand the thrust of the message here without understanding that everyone has to have some kind of hermeneutic to read the Bible even if you want to call it approach or interpretation, and that there a lot of different approaches that are valid for different kinds of people.

    That’s a tough sell for the personality type that finds its comfort zone and refuge within Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism. Whatever else might be said about this particular mindset, it is fiercely loyal, and this can be a good thing in other settings. Probably the main identifier of those most in need of this teaching and most opposed to it, is holding to Biblical Inerrancy, whatever that means, at the top of the list of crucial beliefs. Many would be willing to die before giving an inch of ground here. Reason and logic and five dollar words are not necessarily the most effective tools in dealing with this.

    Yes, pastors and teachers should be the ones educating the congregations, but they may be the ones most strongly resisting the notion that there are other ways of looking at things than Sunday School literalism. Often it seems like the main mission of this site, and many of the authors and commentators presented here, is to rescue those who are open to growth. Often this seems to be conducted at the advanced high school and college level, and not too many questioning Evangelicals are likely to find their way here or to Peter Enns et al anyway. Maybe what is needed in addition is this information, such as in this series, given at a 6th grade school level without condescension, a new handbook of the Bible for newbies. That’s hard to do.

    • There is something more fundamental than what you call “the mission of this site.”

      First and foremost, it is the writer’s personal opportunity to work through his or her own, usually post-evangelical, thoughts and understandings concerning whatever theological issue is being written about, and to do it in the context of an open conversation.

      I write not so much to convince others as to come to terms with my own journey.

      I do hope, however, that it will be of use to others.

      • I taught school in another life and I never learned so much as when I taught, requiring a mastery of the subject or risking a complete lack of credibility. Sharing your journey in front of everyone as you do does demand a more laser like focus on your part. That’s a mixed bag but certainly a positive in some respects. It’s a rich journey and a personal help to me, watching from out here in the peanut gallery. Thanks!

        • Rick Ro. says:

          +1.

          I lead an adult Sunday school class and can only hope I convey just a little inkling of the stuff that I learn in preparing the material.

          Also, it’s difficult to argue with someone’s testimony, which is what makes personal testimony so valuable. If you (Chaplain Mike) say to us, “I’m on this journey and here’s what I’m experiencing,” that’s a great way to convey different (and sometimes challenging) ideas.

  3. Christiane says:

    There is some benefit in learning Scripture the ‘old-fashioned’ way Christians have always learned of it: by hearing it read aloud in community. The word ‘liturgy’ is not a word that many Christian people are knowledgeable about, because they tend to think of it as ceremonial mumbo-jumbo; but IF they come to a liturgical service and listen, they will hear more of sacred Scripture read, spoken, and prayed aloud than they have ever heard in one of their Church’s lengthy evangelical sermons.

    Imagine the impact of HEARING the word of God ‘unfiltered’ through the opinion of a person who is ‘explaining what it means’. That allows a person to encounter it even from a young age, before reading is an accomplishment. And imagine hearing the word of God over many years, in three-year cycles in liturgical readings that follow the Church year . . . these words become a part of your life, a part of who you are . . . transformative? Heavens, yes.

    I do see the ‘effects’ of encountering sacred Scripture in its pure form (without all the ‘explanation’ as to what ‘the Bible clearly says’) as something we are intended to receive . . . as something guarded and treasured and copied by hand during the millenia and passed down to us BY the Church . . . the Church that protected these writings and approved the ‘canon’. We cannot discount the role of the Church as receptor, preserver, guardian, and distributor when we hold a copy of sacred Scripture in our hands . . . although many have tried to do this. Those thousands of monks in scriptoriums over the ages have handed us their legacy as they received it from those who came before them. Printing presses arrived very late to the celebration. 🙂

  4. Ronald Avra says:

    Chaplain, I’m grateful for your attention to this subject. It’s a perspective that I need to be periodically reminded of and it is very helpful to me personally. Thanks.

  5. Richard Hershberger says:

    “we fail to appreciate the diversity of genres in Scripture and go on to read its apocalyptic literature and poetry with the same literalistic mindset as when reading its historical narratives.”

    I would say it is far worse than this. We often treat scripture as a rule book, consisting of arbitrarily divided snippets of text independent of one another. Any given snippet has the full weight of divine proclamation, regardless of what comes before or after it. The favored technique to make an argument is to find a snippet that seems to support your position, quote it, and declare that God Has Spoken. The Bible says it, and that is good enough for me! feh.

    It is telling that legal briefs are often constructed in much the same way. The technique is pure legalism. The difference is that a legal brief is written to persuade a judge, and if he is any good at all, he (or his law clerk) will read the case you are quoting from to understand the context of the snippet. If it turns out that you have distorted its meaning through contextual games, he will not be happy with you. In religious discourse, on the other hand, this is par for the course, and pointing out the meaning of the snippet in its context will likely as not result in you being condemned as a godless liberal.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      The favored technique to make an argument is to find a snippet that seems to support your position, quote it, and declare that God Has Spoken. The Bible says it, and that is good enough for me!

      Like a Calormene quoting the Poets.
      (Or its RL inspiration — an exaggerated Muslim character going “IT IS WRITTEN! IT IS WRITTEN!”)

  6. Stephen says:

    New Testament historian Bart Ehrman has repeatedly pointed out that none of the “controversial” ideas he has discussed in his books are new. No one can go through a M.Div program without hearing about these controversies. So why don’t they make to the pews? Well thanks to folks like Ehrman now they do. But you can see why ministers would be reluctant to open a big old can of worms. But it ill prepares the congregations to deal with these issues when they do get aired. But again it’s not entirely the ministers fault. Most congregations don’t go to church for real Bible study. Their concerns are elsewhere.i

    • Focus on what ‘works’ – pragmatism. Do what’s needed to build a bigger church, bigger salary, ‘grow the kingdom’ (somebody’s). And if you open a can of worms it could cost you your job. Since the pastor today is expected to be a CEO (not a teacher/shepherd) all that Bible and theology stuff they learned in seminary is, well, pretty useless. That’s why some seminaries (I’m thinking of a particular denomination) boldly proclaim that their job is not to train ‘scholars’ but to train ‘pastors’ to minister in churches (i.e., be the CEO). Unfortunately the fruit of that approach is the unhealthy mess we know as evangelicalism.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        That’s why some seminaries (I’m thinking of a particular denomination) boldly proclaim that their job is not to train ‘scholars’ but to train ‘pastors’ to minister in churches (i.e., be the CEO).

        i.e. the Christianese version of “I’M AN M.B.A. AND…”
        Pointy hair and all.

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  8. This series sure is a nice encapsulation of what amounts to a lifetime of hard work, a distillation. I can’t help but see it as one of those little booklets churches have for the taking in whatever they call their lobby, but this one might actually make a difference for some people. All kinds of churches. Great work and, I expect, to be continued.