How To Read The Bible Spiritually, Not Religiously

Saturday, November 14, 2015

What is the foundation of our faith? What is our faith based on? One of the most prevalent approaches within Evangelical circles is to make the Bible the primary foundation. This is typical of Calvinism, and in its stronger forms can involve a distrust and dismissal of things like prayer, worship, and mystical experience. In other words, anything that might be connected with feelings and emotions is seen as suspect. The rational is equally mistrusted. People are taught that they can't trust their own thoughts or moral judgments. 

The problem here is not with the Bible, so much as it is with a particular way of reading the Bible which results in a faith that is disconnected from our experiences, relationships, feelings, and thoughts -- in short, disconnected from life and what makes us human. 

That means that rather than having an experience of God, rather than having a living relationship, all there is is the Bible. It is not the Bible as a means to lead us to God, but the Bible as a replacement for God. The Bible being our one and only source, becomes our de facto god. 

When we then discover that the Bible is morally fallible, this shakes the very foundation of our faith. We then need to figure out for ourselves what is right and wrong, but we have zero tools for doing this. Since we've been taught for so long to mistrust our own ability to make moral judgments, these parts of our brains are like atrophied muscles.

That brings us to the Charismatic movement which also has had a huge impact on Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, it does not offer much of an alternative. Here the problem is not that feelings are involved, but that very little thought has gone into how to connect our own life experiences with the Bible. Really all we get is something like "Just make sure that it does not go against the Bible, your pastor, or what your church friends think (in that order)" In other words, it boils down to falling back on authoritarianism, which is where we started. There's no thought of how we can be counter-cultural (including religious culture), or how we can question abusive authority like Jesus did.

What I'd like to propose is a third option that goes like this: We live our lives, and we have experiences. Say, for example, you experience what it is like to be loved unconditionally by someone. Like that guy who wrote Amazing Grace, you experience how that kind of "unmerited love" breaks you, changes you, heals you. Or maybe you experience what it means to forgive someone who has hurt you, and how your hurt and the relationship itself is healed and renewed through that. You live those things, and in that experience you recognize that, while these things were by no means easy or comfortable -- in fact, it was extremely hard and difficult -- yet, nevertheless, there was something amazing going on, something deeply good, something... God

That's spirituality, where we connect those deep things in life to meaning, where we see what maters, what we were made for, where we recognize our telos.

Then you pick up the Bible and read where people are making those exact same connections, living out those same things, and you say "Yes! That's exactly what I'm experiencing, too!" The Bible then is not read as a catalog of dogmatic statements detached from life, but becomes a means for us to explain and understand what we experience, connecting it to meaning. 

That's the function of story, and why a movie or novel can bring you to tears as it helps you connect life experience with meaning. The Bible is filled with stories, and the New Testament in particular is a testimony of a people's encounter with God among us.  Their purpose in writing is for us to encounter the same living Someone that they had. That's why John writes,

"We saw it, we heard it, and now we’re telling you so you can experience it along with us, this experience of communion with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. Our motive for writing is simply this: We want you to enjoy this, too. Your joy will double our joy!" (1 John 1:3-4 MSG)

The Bible helps us to connect the dots between our own life experience of what is truly and deeply good, so we can recognize, as we walk in grace and forgiveness and love, "God is in this! This is the way! This is the life! This is the truth!"

The Bible has a vital role to play here in that it helps us to connect the dots, pointing us to Christ. But equally important is that we are living our faith out, growing in it, walking it out. Even better is to be walking it out together in a Jesus-shaped community which may, or may not, meet in a building with a pointy roof on the weekend to sing songs and listen to a talk. The important point here is not the thing that happens on the weekend, but that there is actually a community, a group of people who are all living this out in their day-to-day lives. When that's a reality then it becomes possible to benefit from the shared wisdom of others who have been down the road you are now on. However, when church is instead a thing we attend as spectators, that's not actually community at all.

Here I see the most fruits from those in the peace churches -- Quakers, Mennonites, and Anabaptists. They seem to have a deep history of walking out what it means to live in forgiveness, grace and enemy love. So those are the traditions I'm looking to, and hoping to learn from, as I stumble along towards the light.

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At 5:31 PM, Anonymous Robert said...

This is superb Derek!! The Bible is God's tool to share Himself throughout history in people's real lives, not to be a prooftext. I want to know what you and any others think about a point you made which i think really underlies the problem in evangelicalism of reading the Bible spiritually. There is a huge tilt towards viewing all that is in the Bible as the *very word of God*, and everything written in it is exactly word for word what God wanted it to be. Even though He used humans to write it, He made sure they only wrote as He wante them too. Ones with this view try to say we must not speak our own opinion or flawed human understanding of anything trhe Bible says, but must plainly clearly let the Bible speak for itselfso only Gods Spirit is providing understanding. How in the world is this accomplished though??? Once we begin to read the Bible we must interpret, so how are we to do this?? If the Spirit provides the sole interpretation why then are we not ALL uniform in one true sole interpretation of every verse?? Just something ytou stirred in me hope it is on point

At 6:53 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Wonderful post, again, Derek!
I hope you realize the good you are doing with your writing. I suspect it's hard to see sometimes but I wanted to point out how this post is another step in the right direction and food that sustains the rest of us on this journey.

I thought you might be interested in this article pointing out the benefits of meditation for kids in schools from poor and violent backgrounds. As a former evangelical, this sort of thing was "anathema" but the more I read about it, the more I see it is a part of most religious traditions and empirical evidence suggests benefit.

At 10:26 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes the problem with Evangelicalism is that it works with a Bible that they wish they had, rather than the Bible the we actually do have. The Bible is not inerrant. It has multiple contradictions, not just scientifically but morally. It promotes things that are bad. So to read that Bible as if it is beyond question, purposely leaving out our own moral evaluation, is a guarantee that we will read it immorally. That was precisely the problem the Pharisees had, and today's conservative Evangelicalism is repeating that error.

Once we can face the reality of what the Bible actually is, recognizing the fact that it does have some things in it that are bad, and that we must morally reject (like slavery for example), the next question is "Okay, but if that is the case, how do we read it so it leads us towards love and helps us to be more like Jesus?" My post here is an attempt to point us in the direction of what that could look like by showing how we can have scripture work in tandem with our own experience of faithfully living in the way of Jesus, rather than disconnecting the two as a typical Calvinist Evangelical reading does.

At 11:07 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Thank Steve, I appreciate the encouragement!

Regarding the article, I don't know much about TM, but I'm quite familiar with mindfulness. Personally I prefer mindfulness over meditation because it's really just about noticing what's around you, rather than attempting to turn it off (which I think is the point of TM where you focus on a repeated sound). I find that works well with how my brain works, and that my brain just cannot do the other style, especially the TM kind of "focus on nothing" which is also kind of what is done in Quaker worship, I think, where they are silently listening for God.

So for example, rather than trying not to worry, with mindfulness you acknowledge the worry, but rather than focusing on it, or fighting to not think about it, you acknowledge the thought and let it pass.

Another thing I find interesting is "loving kindness meditation" aka "compassion meditation" where you focus on thoughts of love towards yourself and others. This seems very similar to my own experience of praying for my enemies.

At 4:34 PM, Anonymous Anne said...

Interesting you mention the "peace" churches. Fifteen years ago in my 33 year journey of Christianity I attended a Mennonite church and befriended many. Their lifestyle as an example of a community living out its faith is very compelling in demonstrating fruit of the spirit and the art of forgiveness.

At 5:13 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, my own background is charismatic, and while there was a focus on experience and lived faith it was a focus on a "personal relationship with Jesus." While that is something that is vitally important (moral development and character begins with learning to love yourself), it never really went much beyond that personal focus.

But Jesus does not stop with me receiving forgiveness and love and salvation, but wants my being loved unconditionally to spill over into my own walk of loving others like I have been loved. When I got to that point, it seemed that I was at the boarders of what my own charismatic church had to offer. Again, I'm grateful for what they did offer -- knowing I am loved by God, what a gift! -- but I feel now that to be faithful to Jesus I need to go beyond me being loved, and learn to love others like Jesus loved me.

I see the peace churches as having a deep history of walking that out in discipleship, finding out by practice what it means to forgive, what it means to love your enemy. So I'm looking to see what I can from their learned experience.


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