Living With the Bible
I’m always curious to observe how people view the Bible, both inside and outside of the church. There are often very interesting assumptions at work about what it means to “take the Bible seriously” or about how Christians view (or ought to view) the Bible. Everyone thinks they have a good understanding of what it means to “believe in the Bible” (or, more often to disbelieve in the Bible) whether this understanding comes from inside or outside of the Christian fold.
A few interesting conversations about the Bible have brought this question to the fore. One came as I was sitting in a coffee shop this morning and the following snippet of a conversation caught my ear (I suppose you could say I was eavesdropping, but these people were talking rather loudly): “When I was ten, I realized that all of the “proofs” of the Bible depended upon the Bible, and I was like “sorry, I’m not buying this if it all depends on one book.”
What proceeded was a very lightly informed excursus on archaeology, text criticism, the superiority of Eastern religions, and a general potpourri of psychological/spiritual sentiments. A thinly veiled resentment of the Catholic church and all of its supposed abuses pervaded the conversation. Christians—whether Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or otherwise—just were “those people” who believed unthinkingly “in the Bible.”
Another conversation I was recently a part of centred around a mutual acquaintance who had reached mid-life and was in the midst of the all the all-too-common collection of relational, spiritual, and vocational breakdowns that attended it. The person I was speaking with located the bulk of the cause of these problems—at least a full twenty-five years later—with an incorrect “liberal” approach to Scripture that was taught at a particular educational institution that they both attended. “If only they had been taught that the Bible was God’s word,” this person said. Many of the problems they were now experiencing could presumably have been avoided if only they had been adopted the “correct” approach to living under the authority of the Bible.
There was a time when hearing these two conversations would have made me an unholy combination of angry and self-righteously defensive. I would have launched into a (mostly interior) diatribe about the number and variety of the erroneous assumptions about the Bible at work. I would have stewed about it for a good chunk of my day/week. I would have galvanized myself to do what I could to correct the faulty and damaging assumptions about Scripture I saw in their comments. I suppose I would have, in a weird kind of way, taken these comments as a personal attack of some kind—as if my own faith was at stake in their misunderstandings and misconstruals of what “real Christians” thought about the Bible.
But when I think about these conversations today, it mostly makes me sad. I am sad that people reject God based on such inadequate understandings of how the Bible ought to operate in a life of faith. I am sad that people pronounce judgment on the orthodoxy of others and their understanding of the Bible in the midst of very real and painful difficulties. I am sad that the Bible is so frequently used as a weapon to fortify our defenses against what we don’t understand or what causes us pain.
I remain convinced that how we read and follow Scripture and how we teach our children to read and follow Scripture is hugely important and worth thinking and talking about. I remain convicted that this is one of my central tasks as a pastor. But to be perfectly frank, the task seems too big sometimes. There is too much history to fight against. Too much apathy and interpretive laziness. Too little willingness to countenance different understandings without calling into question someone’s orthodoxy. It can be exhausting, living with this book and trying to point toward the hope it contains amidst the tangled web of bitterness and misunderstanding that surrounds it.
Do I “believe” in the Bible? No, I don’t. I believe in the God that the Bible points us toward. I don’t feel compelled to use words like “inerrant,” “perspicacious,” “infallible,” or any of the other words adopted by well-meaning and pious folks to convince others (and themselves) that they believe strongly or rightly enough. I believe God speaks through the Bible. I believe the Bible is trustworthy and sufficient to accomplish the purposes God has intended it to accomplish. I don’t feel compelled to say more (or less) than that.
The Bible is not always an easy book to live with, but it is an important way in which God has chosen to make himself known and is to be honoured as such. The church must continue to wrestle with how to read it, why to read it, and what reading it ought to lead to. We must pass on an understanding of how to live with the Bible to the next generation that does not repeat the dead-ends that are such a familiar part of the contemporary landscape.
My hope and prayer is that in twenty or thirty years my kids are not sitting in a coffee shop looking back at their history with the Bible with either a combination of resentment and mild ignorance or an unhealthy and ungenerous dogmatism. I hope that they can learn how to honour the Bible without commodifying and rigidifying it. Most of all, I hope that the redemptive story Scripture tells becomes a part of who they are. I hope they (and all of us) can learn to live well with the Bible.