Tuesday, September 01, 2015
A common question I deal with in regards to the Bible is how one can move from an authoritarian reading to one that involves ethical/moral engagement and responsibility. I have written about that quite a bit. This time around however I want to address a question that comes at things from the other side, and asks basically "Why should we read the Bible at all? Why not just toss it in the waste bin?"
So let's dive into the question asked by a reader which I think captures the dilemma quite well,
“The question I have is, If the Bible more times than not leads us to a misunderstanding of God, why give it such preeminence in one's relationship with him, especially after we come to a realization of God as love?...I would agree that IF we are going to use the Bible, we need to read it through the lens of love... I just don't see the benefits of continuing to base my revelation of love on a book that more times than not won't get me there.”
Great question. Let's start by putting things into some perspective: Remember that the Bible is not the goal of our faith, Christ is. Christ is not a concept we find in a book, or set of teachings. Christ is alive. We are seeking a living connection with the one who is life, and truth. Through that living connection we are relationally formed into Christ’s image. Not by doctrine, but through relationship.
The Bible is a vehicle whose purpose is to lead us to Christ. If we find that it leads us away from Christ, away from loving action, away from compassion, and towards hurtful things—like self-loathing, hard-heartedness, and ungrace—then we need a change.
Perhaps that change entails learning to read it differently, in a way that leads us to Christ. One of the aims of my book Disarming Scripture is to work out how to read Scripture like Jesus did. However, for many this may need to come in steps.
Perhaps because of long indoctrination we will be unable to read even the words of Jesus without hearing them in a way that is shaming and leading us away from love. In that case, we may need to learn from someone else who shows us the way of Jesus, and shows us how see things in a way that leads us to life and love, rather that getting this directly from the NT.
Let’s return to the idea though that “the Bible more times than not leads us to a misunderstanding of God.” Here I think it’s critical that we differentiate between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament is not a book that presents a single vision of who God is and what is good, but rather it is a collection of books with multiple conflicting visions of who God is and what is good. It is a catalog of a people’s developing understandings of God over time. So some of the understandings in it are terrible and wrong. That’s why we frequently hear a biblical writer say “that’s terrible and wrong!” The prophets do that all the time.
So you can’t just flip open the OT and follow whatever it says. It may be something awful and immoral. You need to learn to embrace the things that Jesus embraced, and reject the things that he rejected. The Old Testament in that regard is a lot like life. There is good in life, but you need to look hard for it, and there is also a whole lot of rotten stuff going on in the world. Just watch the news. So with life, and with the OT, we need to learn to dig for the gold, and that means that we also will need to dig through a lot of dirt to get there.
With the New Testament the case is different because it is pretty consistent in the vision it presents of who God is and what is good. There are some differences among the NT writers to be sure, but these represents differences in how to best live in the way of mercy, as opposed to one person advocating mercy and another advocating the opposite (like Moses commanding soldiers to “show them no mercy!” in the OT).
With the NT the real problem is often not the minor differences in the applications of the NT writers, or the limitations they had (for example the idea of abolishing slavery seemed to not be on their mental horizon), but far more what we bring to the NT as we read it.
Many if not most Evangelicals have been taught to begin with the unChristlike values of the Old Testament (things like seeing vengeance as just and good, or seeing greatness in terms of glory and power, rather than humility and service) and carry these values over to how they read the NT. Instead, we should be letting the NT correct the OT, but we do the opposite.
So that means we need to get a new vision of what is good that is based on what we see (or should see) in Jesus. If however we are projecting these unChristlike visions of what is good onto Jesus, then the NT will not lead us to Christ, and in fact can keep us from Christ.
This brings me to the pursuit of the good. What is good? We might ask. How can we know? I do not believe in arguments based on authority. I believe in arguments based on merit. The way of Jesus is not good “because I said so! that’s why!” (an argument of authority). It is good because it can be demonstrated to actually be good. The way of grace and forgiveness is not easy, but we can experience that they are indeed good and life-giving in a deep way.
So we begin with what we can recognize is good. Not based on “because I said so” authority, but based on its actual merit.
So I say, if you can best get to that way of life by not reading the Bible, then do it. Do what you need to do to move towards the one who is life. I’m sure that Jesus would care most that we are able to find life and love, and move towards showing that love to others, no matter how we get there.