“We run into trouble when we take the Bible as a message to be preached rather than something to wrestle with.”
That (paraphrased) gem from Pete Enns has been stuck in my head for months now, ever since I first heard it on the Liturgists podcast towards the end of last year. In recent weeks, listening to his new podcast has got me thinking about the topic of how we read the Bible afresh.
Those of you who read last week’s post on the Bible and experience will have already heard some of my thoughts on the matter, but this week I wanted to take the discussion somewhere else – in fact, it’s the discussion itself that I want to focus on.
For a long time I subscribed treated the Bible as a message to be preached, and in some ways, I still do. The problem with that approach is that it begs this question: ‘which message?’ While the Bible does, to an extent form a cohesive whole, it strikes me as just as much a collection of different exper relationships with God that various people and cultures throughout ancient history experienced.
As such, it’s tricky to pick take a line of argument based on the text and not to find some pushback from the text itself, or from different interpretations of the same thing that you’re reading. I personally believe that there are fundamental messages contained within the Bible, such as the message of the salvation of Jesus Christ, but even that seemingly basic message has nuanced and tricky parts – Paul wrestles with it all the way through Romans and it still doesn’t seem much clearer!
I’m increasingly dissatisfied with takes on passages within the Bible – or even the Bible as a whole, that crystallise the text to a singular meaning (that will often fit nicely within a particular denomination’s beliefs). It’s more interesting to me to see the Bible as a kaleidoscope of perspectives that all bring something different to the table, and then to discuss those perspectives in light of the kaleidoscope of views that modern Christians bring to the table.
Sure, that approach doesn’t lead to many firm conclusions about what the text says, but it doesn’t have to! Because what the approach encourages is individual humans working as a community to deepen their relationships with God.
None of this is to lessen the inspired nature of the Bible, but it does encourage us to look at inspiration in a different light. Rather than seeing the entirety of the Bible as God writing to us via the puppeteered pens of humans, it allows us to see something of the humans themselves in the writings. Try reading the writings of Peter, Paul and James in the New Testament and saying that there aren’t differences in personality that come through in the text! Each one is clearly writing out of their personal relationship with God, but that comes across in a very different way – it’s even conceivable, perhaps likely, that some of the content of the various letters is there to be in conversation with the teachings of other apostles.
Consider Paul’s mention of ‘certain men from James’ in Galatians 2:12 – that suggests to me that there were differences of opinion and belief at various times throughout the very early church that it’s a stretch to think didn’t come across in the letters that were written!
If the writers of the Bible were engaged in a discussion with one another and their cultures, why shouldn’t we do the same as Christians today? It’s fine to teach how to apply various parts of the Bible in sermons etc., but let’s do so with a spirit of humility that allows us to admit that we don’t know everything and that other legitimate interpretations exist.
Before I finish, I just want to address one of the pushbacks that is made against this take on the Bible. Some argue that moving away from a single, clear message leads to gnosticism, where the only thing left is special, mysterious knowledge that you can only learn after going through various spiritual initiations. My view can’t fall into that trap because to say that there is special knowledge is to go back to saying that there is, somewhere, a single message to proclaim. Rather, I see the Bible as something that we can argue and debate about, knowing as we do that we’re all children of God and that getting something wrong isn’t going to get us into trouble if we’re genuinely seeking to know him more.
The only knowledge that we’re pursuing is the personal knowledge of God that comes with getting closer to him, and talking about the experiences of those that have gone before us to help us see that our views and experiences don’t exist in a background. We’re part of this vast web of humanity that God has pulled together and called his Church, and the way we read the Bible should reflect that.