Saturday, June 18, 2016
The Bible has been called a two-edged sword, and unfortunately that means it can cut both ways – it can do great good and great harm – depending on how we use it. So the question is, how can we know that we are reading the Bible in a way that makes us more moral, not less moral?
The Bible is a means not an end. Love is the goal, and the Bible is supposed to be a servant to lead us to love. If we are reading it in a way that leads us away from love, it would be better not to read it at all. That’s where a lot of people end up. They see all of the yucky stuff in the Bible – the parts that promote racism and oppression and violence and so on – and they just want to chuck the whole thing. So why do I keep reading? I can answer that in a single word.
I read the Bible in the hopes of understanding what Jesus was about, learning to see things like he did, think like he did, love like he did. In particular Jesus’ idea about loving your enemies is something that has captured my heart and mind. It is something that is still needed and radical today some two thousand years later. I want to learn what it means to do that. So I immerse myself in that book (including reading Paul, who I see as trying to figure out how to live out that Jesus-shaped love).
So that’s why I still read the Bible. But still the question remains, how can I read in a way that makes me more moral as opposed to making me less moral? How can I read the Bible in a way that challenges my own blind spots and the blind spots in my culture?
Something that I hear a lot as an evangelical is conservative Christians who maintain that they are going against the grain of their culture today and upholding the Bible and tradition. So if we all think something is bad, but the Bible says it’s good then we need to trust the Bible. The basic assumption is that the Bible should override what we observe and experience in life to be good.
The logic behind this seems straightforward enough: If we want to have the Bible and the way of Jesus act as a corrective to the broken values of our society, then shouldn’t we let the Bible trump what seems right to us? The problem is this is an argument based on authority, and as long as we are basing something on authority alone (including the authority of the Bible) we are by definition not really understanding it. This authoritarian approach inevitably always leads to hurtful interpretations because it has no means to differentiate between what is hurtful and what is loving. In fact, what happens is we disregard what we can observe about life, we disregard our hearts (and the Holy Spirit in us!) saying “this is wrong, stop!” and we disregard people saying “Hey you are really hurting me, please stop!”
In short, the absolute worst possible way to read the Bible is in an authoritarian way, and that is precisely the way most of us have learned to read it. What I want to propose instead is that it is possible to read the Bible in a way that informs our morality, and that goes beyond simply mirroring the values of our culture. That includes by the way mirroring the entrenched values and assumptions of our particular faith tradition or of our culture from a couple decades ago in “the good old days.”
Typically one is either on the side of tradition and the Bible, and dismissive of the voices of those who are marginalized in society by religion, or one is on the side of those who are marginalized in society by religion, and dismissive of the Bible. If we look at how Jesus read Scripture however, what we find is that he read it in a way that was connected to real life and our observed experience, and in particular by giving voice to the voiceless. He interpreted the law in a way that did not ignore the injustices of his day, as the Pharisees did, but interpreted the law in a way that resulted in loving those who were being harmed by an authoritarian interpretation of the law.
The law was the servant of the people, Jesus said, and so he therefore saw no problem in changing the law to accommodate the situation so that the end was love – breaking the Sabbath to help someone in need, ignoring the command to punish in favor of promoting reconciliation and restoration instead, going beyond commands for retribution and calling people instead to the way of enemy love.
What is key here is interpreting and applying Scripture not in a way that ignores what we can observe about what is good for people and how life works, but in a way that is integrally connected with our lived reality. This is the opposite of an authoritarian approach because instead of saying that we will obey without understanding, we say we need to seek to understand so we can obey (i.e. follow, live as a disciple) well.
That means we need to really get what the way of Jesus is about, and the only way to do that is by living it out. We will never understand what the complex reality of forgiveness looks like until we actually walk through it – both as individuals and as a community. We won’t ever get what reconciliation looks like until we learn to practice it. It can’t just be theoretical, it needs to be practiced and lived.
I also have to say that the more I walk in this the more I find words to describe the Bible like authoritative, infallible, inerrant, and even inspired to be really unhelpful. I know that make a lot of people nervous, so let me explain why I dislike them all. The reason is that they are almost always used in a way that promotes an authoritarian reading. They are used to shut down questions, and shut down people. I have no time for that.
That’s not to say that I reject these concepts, but simply that I want to be able to have a productive and practical conversation about how to read and apply the Bible in our lives, and want to work with words and concepts that help that, rather than hinder it. So I find it is much more helpful to simply approach the Bible, and in particular the words of Jesus, like I would any other idea – not blindly and unthinkingly following it, not treating it like it was sacred and untouchable, but seeking to really understand it. I strip away everything romantic and just ask “is there something good here?” which is the way I would approach reading any book.
That does not mean that I think the Bible is just “any” book. But I find that “any” book approach actually helps. My goal, after all, in reading the Bible is to go beyond the book and to reach the person behind the book. The way I have come to understand inspiration is that it is about encountering the Holy Spirit – inspired = in-Spirit-ed. The book is not the Spirit. The words on the page are not the Spirit. The Bible is a vehicle, a window, through which we can encounter the living Spirit of Christ speaking straight into our heart, personally and powerfully. So the Bible is not in itself inspired. An atheist can read the Bible and not encounter God at all (and so can we). The Bible is a means for us to encounter the Spirit, but that takes our heart being open to that encounter with the living Word of God, Jesus.