Ryan the Bible Teacher?!
For those who do not know, I have been hired to teach one section of an Introduction to Biblical Studies class at Columbia Bible College in the fall semester. I’m pretty excited about this—my wife and I attended CBC for a year in the mid-1990’s and we have very fond memories of the place. Also, it’s not much of a secret that I would like to teach on a more permanent basis after I graduate—either in an academic or church context—and this could represent one tiny foot in the door to the world of teaching. At the very least, it will give me some much needed experience in learning how to be a public figure, and it will force me to learn how to communicate ideas clearly and helpfully in an interactive environment (not to mention I get a funky CBC library card that says “Sessional Faculty” on it, right beside a picture of me with a rather stupid looking grin on my face—almost like I was convinced that I was getting away with something, and I wanted to get out of there before somebody found out…).
I have to admit, though, that I was initially a little nervous about the prospect of teaching a course on biblical interpretation. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the Bible is hugely important! The Bible is our means of learning about and participating in the redemptive story of God. It is vital that students (and sessional faculty!) learn how to use it properly, allowing themselves to be comforted and encouraged, shaped and challenged by what is contained in its pages. The Bible shows us a God who, in Christ, was willing to suffer gross evil and injustice in order to be reconciled with an obstinate and rebellious world. This is a profound truth that is deeply moving on many levels. And it is the Bible that reveals this God to us.
It’s just that I’m not a Bible scholar. My background is in philosophy and theology, not Biblical Studies. I try to read the Bible regularly, and I’m reasonably certain that I know enough principles of interpretation and historical/cultural background to make some sound judgments about what the Bible may or may not be saying in a given context. But I’m not one of these people with an encyclopedic knowledge of biblical timelines, dates, characters, genealogies, authorship controversies, text-critical issues, etc, etc. Most of the time when these sorts of issues came up in my classes at Regent, my eyes would kind of glaze over and I would struggle mightily to maintain concentration until we got to the broader biblical themes. Regarding the Bible, as with most other areas in life, I tend to be a “big picture” guy. Stick me in amongst the trees for too long, and I’ll be lost and longing for the view of the whole forest.
To be honest, sometimes I find it hard to like the Bible. Let’s face it—the Bible doesn’t always make things easy for us. What am I going to say if/when some bright student demands to hear my perspective on how to reconcile the Sermon on the Mount with God’s command to wipe out the Canaanites? How am I going to deal with such inevitably divisive New Testament issues as the role of women in the church or the appropriateness of certain spiritual gifts? How am I going to reconcile a God who is deeply concerned about our individual lives with, say, the book of Job? Ask me about any of those issues from a purely philosophical or theological perspective, and I could probably come up with some decent justifications for my views. Ask me to do it from a biblical perspective and watch me squirm…
At times it feels like the Bible is something that I have to actively struggle with just to stay sane, and to preserve moral intuitions that I am quite certain are good and proper. The Bible is a beautiful book, full of comfort, wisdom, and truth; but it is also a baffling book that has this annoying habit of making me uncomfortable from time to time. Sometimes I find it hard to accept that this is one of the primary ways God has spoken, and I resist accommodating myself to the Biblical narrative. I am much more comfortable with theology and philosophy. Give me some abstract principle, universal law, or logical proof and I’m a happy camper. But don’t give me a messy history full of morally ambiguous characters, cultural idiosyncrasies, obscure poetry, baffling prophecy and apparent contradictions which culminates with an injunction to to “die to myself” and pattern myself after a suffering God!
I suppose it’s good and proper to feel some degree of trepidation about teaching a course on how to interpret the Bible. And I think that the fact that the Bible makes me uncomfortable is a good and necessary thing. If the Bible simply reflected roughly the ideas and values of a moderately educated, middle-class, white North American every step of the way, then in what sense could it stand over me (or anyone else)? The books of the Bible tell the story of a God who has seen fit to work out his redemptive plan within the messy parameters of history. The fact that I occasionally wish that it were something other than what it is likely says a good deal more about me, than about the nature of the Bible…
I am heartened by the fact that God has never (according to the Bible!) required perfect messengers to get his message across. The biblical narrative is chock-full of ignorant, inadequate, immoral, faithless, obstinate, weak, timid, cowardly human beings who are, nevertheless, used by God in his ongoing project of redeeming his world. This is good news! Especially for a hyper-rationalistic skeptic who struggles mightily with the Bible yet is, nonetheless, charged with communicating the power, beauty, and transformative impact of the word of God.