Is the Bible Still "Relevant"?

Kyle A. RobertsIf 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.

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.