Is the Bible Still "Relevant"?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lamented the loss of biblical literacy in his own day, spoke pointedly to an over-emphasis on "relevance" and the self-importance of the individual Christian. In Life Together, he suggested that we ought to read the Bible consecutively and in large chunks, so as to fit ourselves into the biblical narrative—rather than fitting it into ours (by focusing only on a verse here or there and applying it out of context). When we let the Bible speak to us "we are torn out of our own existence and set down in the midst of the holy history of God on earth. There God dealt with us, and there He still deals with us, our needs and our sins, in judgment and grace" (53).
When we realize the Bible is not primarily about us, we experience a "complete reversal." We begin to understand ourselves in the light of the greater story of Israel, Jesus Christ, and the church and we see ourselves as minor—but nonetheless significant—recipients of a narrative integral to us but exceedingly greater than us. As Bonhoeffer said, "It is in fact more important for us to know what God did to Israel, to His Son, Jesus Christ, than to seek what God intends for us today . . . only in the Holy Scriptures do we learn to know our own history" (54).
Contrary to what might appear, I'm not advocating, necessarily, for a more fundamentalist approach to the Bible in the church. In fact, when predicting the centrality of the Bible in a given church, the terms "liberal" and "conservative" may not be of great use. Interpretations of scripture are more or less predictable along that spectrum, but one might find, for example, a deeper appreciation for the Bible in actual practice in a liturgical and theologically progressive community than in a pragmatic but theologically conservative one. This may be, in part at least, because progressive churches don't experience the internal pressure, common in conservative circles, to definitively answer all the questions raised by the more peculiar texts. There may be more comfort in living with the questions that difficult, "foreign" texts may raise. On the other hand, it seems irresponsible for pastors and leaders to leave people with only questions if some satisfactory and appropriate answers can be found. On this the conservatives have an important point. But asking hard questions and living with ambiguity—while engaging the scriptures—is not a bad place to begin.
George Stroup, in his excellent book, The Promise of Narrative Theology, states the issue succinctly:
The Bible no longer exercises anything like the authority it once did in many Christian communities. And in those communities where the Bible continues to exercise its traditional role there is little or no serious engagement with the problems of the twentieth century.
It seems that what we need is a proper balance or better: a "both/and." That is, we need more pastors who engage the gritty, raw, challenging, and difficult material of scripture, but who are also deeply committed to contemporary cultural engagement. The challenge, of course, is to link up the "strange, new world of the Bible" (Barth) with the intricate, pressing challenges facing individuals and society today. The Bible and the Gospel speak words of life to our world but they do so from a standpoint that transcends it.
Finally, if you are committed to reading through the Bible this year, when you get to a difficult, "strange" passage and you can't figure out how it applies to your life, consider that it may not be nearly as irrelevant as it appears. It's a part of your history—our history. And relax a bit, because as Bonhoeffer reminded us, it's not really about us anyway. It's about God. Thankfully, though, he's invited us into his story. And it's a story that continues to change the world.
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.