Being a huge fan of Jimmy Fallon, I’ve been digging his handling of The Tonight Show. Total breath of fresh air on the airwaves these days. Jimmy does this bit periodically called “Pros and Cons” where he weighs the good with the bad of current events. Like this one, dealing with the advent of the newest iPhone model.
At our church this summer we have been going through a series called “PRACTICE: Reimagining the Christian Way.” Essentially my wife and I have been unpacking a number of Christian practices and hoping to breathe a fresh word in to them. It’s been a great series, with my personal favorites being Confession, Communion, and Prayer.
Last week I talked about the Practice of Reading the Bible. I shared a bit of my own journey with the Scriptures, starting with a deep love and excitement for the Bible when I first fell in love with Jesus at age 17, moving to a season of treating it like a text book that needed constantly dissected and interpreted and figured out, then entering a season of being disillusioned by the Bible because of how I’d discovered all the ways it has been used to oppress and control people, and finally moving in to my current season of re-falling in love with the Bible but with a deeper appreciation for what it IS and what it ISN’T.
Inspired by Fallon, I chose to use the format of Pros and Cons to lean in to some of the issues surrounding the Bible. I didn’t get to all 7 of my Pro/Cons during my sermon (only had time for 3) so I wanted to share the rest of them here (including the 3 from my sermon, so that they are all part of this blog series).
So without further ado, here are two Pros and Cons of Reading the Bible.
PRO: The Bible is Inspired by God
CON: It has armed people throughout history to do some really atrocious things in the “name of God.”
I believe that at certain times throughout human history people have sought to put into form (originally by story telling, then by writing down) the ways in which they have experienced and interacted with their Creator. And I think that God, being out in front of humanity and inviting us towards greater and greater shalom, is actively involved in that process.
Paul wrote to Timothy, his young pastoral protege, and said these words:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. -2 Tim 3:16-17
This phrase “God-Breathed” (or in other translations, inspired) elicits the very first words written about God in the Creation account. That God “breathed” and creation came-to-be. This action of God’s Breath, God’s Spirit, evokes ideas of creativity and life-giving vitality.
So to say that Scripture is inspired by God is to acknowledge that God’s Spirit was at work in the creation of telling and writing these stories and letters and poems.
As part of our Christian-Family-Tree we have ancestors who taught something called the Dictation Theory, as a way to try and understand what it means for Scripture to be Inspired by God. Essentially they suggested that God actually WROTE the Bible through humans. Meaning, God supernaturally dictated the words and the authors were just the tools/robots to physically write it down.
But that’s not the sense I get from the Scriptures themselves, nor when I observe the world around me and see and taste and experience how God seems to work in conjunction with our human capacity to create and choose.
However, the downside to seeing the Bible as something inspired by God is that it has armed people with a sense of Divine Backing when they do some really horrible things.
You can virtually find a verse to support almost anything in life. And if you’re insistent enough, you can justify any action as being sanctioned by God “because it’s in the Bible!”
So we’ve experienced in history things like slavery being justified and supported by the Bible, and so by extension, God.
We’ve witnessed things like the Inquisition.
We’ve seen the subjugation of women and the oppression of gays and lesbians as being the “Will of God” because this verse or that verse seem to suggest that’s how God designed it.
And the list goes on… I’m not sure you need me to explain. I think you know what I’m talking about.
So the fear for some people, when considering buying in to the idea that the Bible is inspired by God, is totally justified because they have seen first hand how people have used the Bible to do some really awful things.
PRO: The Bible was written by Humans
CON: It’s culture and context isn’t always understood or appreciated
Though the Bible was Inspired by God, it was written and compiled in partnership with humans. So when you read the Bible you become aware of the many different types of voices and styles of the different authors. I think that’s a beautiful thing.
I’m constantly struck by how people have, throughout history, been so intentional about keeping a record of the ways in which they have experienced God.
I mean, think about it.
The Bible represents one of the oldest ancient documents that we still have.
Not only that, but when you consider the amount of manuscripts that we have of the New Testament, for example, it is actually far and away the most well preserved ancient text.
We have more copies, that are closest to the earliest copies, of the NT than we do for any other ancient document.
The Bible is, by and large, a really miraculous thing!
That it has been preserved this long, and kept in tact for this long.
It is truly unique.
So even though it was written by imperfect people, and passed on and preserved by imperfect groups of people, there still remains this unique quality about it that truly sets it apart from other books.
However, for whatever reason, growing up I was not always taught that the Bible was written by humans in a specific time and place to a specific audience for a specific purpose.
In other words, the bible is often believed to be a book of timeless truths, as though Paul was writing with us in mind here in the year 2014.
But that simply isn’t the case.
And so what can happen is that we read the Bible just assuming it is for us here and now (even if, on SOME level that might be true) but we don’t do the hard (but extremely necessary work) of understanding the culture and the context of when these letters were written and stories were told. And so we can get lost in thinking that some things are still applicable for us today when really they were specific to the culture of the time or the place it was written.
So for instance, when Paul says things like “slaves obey your masters,” he is not advocating for slavery. He is speaking to the culture and the context of the day. And if you keep reading, right after that he says, “Masters, you treat your slaves with respect and sincerity.” Paul was working within the context of the culture of his day, but he was simultaneously being an agent of the Kingdom of God and helping move humanity towards greater shalom.
Or how about Proverbs 31? Growing up it seemed that every church a women’s ministry called “Proverbs 31.” And the thinking was always that a truly “biblical” woman is one that looks like the woman being described in Proverbs 31.
But when you understand the language, the culture, and the literary style of Prov 31 you actually discover that this is a poem that celebrates what Wisdom in Action looks like!
(Check out the work Rachel Held Evans has done on this. Gold.)
And it’s actually a poem that men were supposed to learn to recite to their wives as a way to celebrate their strength and wisdom.
It is not, as has often been misunderstood, a directive on how a woman “ought” be.
My point (which is a simple one) is that a full appreciation of the Bible necessitates an understanding and awareness that it was written by humans, as guided and inspired by God, within their specific cultures and contexts.
And so rather than cast verses aside that perhaps offend our modern sensibilities, I invite us to ask: what is the THING that they were getting after? And how might we get after that THING today?