Is the Bible Still "Relevant"?
If you're like many evangelicals, one of your top five New Year's resolutions is to read the Bible more often and more consistently this year. Perhaps you even grabbed of one of those read-through-the-Bible plans to give you some guidance. If you're using the popular McCheyne plan, today (January 23), you'd find yourself halfway through Genesis, well on your way through Matthew and Acts, and nearly finished with Nehemiah. You'd be reading about Sarah's death and Abraham's purchase of a field in which to bury her, Nehemiah's final temple reforms, Jesus' critique of the Pharisees' hypocrisy, and an averted plot to kill Paul. You might be thinking about how it all fits together, and wondering how to apply some of the narrative/historical bits, and to what extent all this is relevant to the Christian life. And you may find yourself doing this without much help or inspiration from your church.
If you're taking a shot at reading through the Bible, you're probably ahead of the curve. Indications are that within Christianity (evangelicalism included) the information and technology explosion has not increased our biblical literacy. George Hunsinger, writing about the great theologian, Karl Barth, noted that he was "habitually honored but not much read" (How to Read Karl Barth, p. 27). The same could likely be said of the Bible within evangelicalism. On any given Sunday, one might hear more Bible in mainline churches than in evangelical ones; oddly, though, it's we evangelicals who most vigorously proclaim its authority, inspiration, and inerrancy. Mainline Protestant and Catholic churches often devote significant space within the church liturgy to the public reading of scripture. Usually these readings are guided by a liturgical calendar, which nullifies the temptation to stick only with the most familiar passages.
Let's face it. It can be difficult to know what to do with sometimes obscure, "foreign," and perhaps even troubling texts. Some biblical material, like the aforementioned plot to kill Paul (Acts 23) or Abraham's business transaction for a burial plot (Gen. 23) may be interesting enough to biblical historians, but can hardly seem "relevant" in the 21st century. Furthermore, Nehemiah's reforms (Neh. 13), which include a ban on inter-racial marriage and some statements of apparent prejudice toward women seems hardly in line with justice and equality for all. Furthermore, Jesus' attitude toward the Law (Mt. 23) is not obvious: theologians continue to debate it fiercely.
The obscurity and "strangeness" of these texts, as they sound to our industrialized, computerized, and individualized ears, has surely contributed to what Hans Frei famously called The Eclipse of the Biblical Narrative. Evangelical churches, many of which explicitly claim the Reformation, with its "sola scriptura" (scripture alone) mantra as a theological heritage, must face an ongoing challenge: how to proclaim the Bible as our charter document and, at the same time, communicate it in contextually relevant and personally transformational ways.
The intense concern for relevance in evangelical churches can be traced (at least in recent history) to the origins of the contemporary "seeker service." The desire to make church an attractive and hospitable experience for the uninitiated is a genuinely commendable objective. It has been done with such earnestness, however that the cart may have flipped the horse.
Kyle Roberts is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Lead Faculty of Christian Thought, Bethel Seminary (St. Paul, MN). He researches and writes on issues related to the intersection of theology, philosophy, and culture. Follow Kyle Roberts' reflections on faith and culture at his blog or via Twitter.