Part 1 : Progressive Reflections on Traditional Christian Themes
One day I received an e-mail from a representative of SONday Distributors. The company had a special deal “for churches only” on “a great Bible.” For just ten dollars each (regular $40 value), we could get a shipment of ANSWER Bibles. That’s right—the ANSWER Bible. Their goal, she wrote, was “to plant a Bible in 10,000 homes, organizations, and establishments in communities across America.” She wanted churches to make a commitment to give them away to “lost” people.
This approach is typical of dualistic versions of Christianity. It’s always “the other” who is “lost” and needs what I have. I’m the answer man or woman. I’ve got the truth, brother. We have the answers, sister. Find it here! Amen!
Normally I click “delete,” not giving this sort of thing a second glance, but for some reason I couldn’t resist the temptation to be a bit sarcastic. (This was not one of my best days.) So I shot back an e-mail to the sales representative: “No thanks, Paula (not her real name; I’m protecting the guilty). I’ve heard enough ANSWERS in my day, but if you ever get a Bible that invites people to ask the hard QUESTIONS let me know.”
She responded with a stinging reprimand, ending the e-mail with: “I say this with the love of Jesus in me.” I couldn’t not respond (with the love of Jesus in me, of course).
Personally, I think if we are going to just pass out Bibles randomly, we should at least attach a warning label: “This could be hazardous to your health.”
What I have discovered is that people looking for answers in the Bible tend to find the answers they are looking for. We all have a tendency to project the answers we want to find into the biblical text.
When we approach a biblical text, we bring our biases with us. It’s unavoidable. The biblical authors and communities were no different than us; they, too, were children of their culture. Their faith encounters with the Divine were interpreted within the framework of their presuppositions, beliefs, and worldview.
Sometimes their experience of God led to a reshaping of their beliefs and worldview; other times their beliefs and worldview determined how they interpreted and understood their experience. But even when their experience of God led them to new places, their understanding of God and God’s relationship to the world was profoundly influenced by their tradition and cultural context through which their experience was filtered.
There are many transformative texts in the Bible, but there are also oppressive texts, and often these can be found in the same biblical book (compare, for example, 1 Cor. 13 with 1 Cor. 14:34-35).
The key question I believe every disciple of Jesus must bring to the Bible is this: Does the text bear witness to the gospel of Jesus? Does the Scripture bear witness to the unconditional love of God and the universal call to restorative justice embodied in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Christ?
Reading all biblical stories through the filter of the story of Jesus is the key to a holistic, healthy, and transformative Christian reading of the Bible. This means that any authentic Christian reading of the Bible will always be tilted and biased toward the virtues and values that Jesus embodied, taught, and died for.
We all inevitably read the Bible with some degree of bias. The critical questions are: Do we know what our biases are? Can we name them? Are we intentional about what biases we bring with us into the interpretative process?
Reading Scripture through the lens of the Jesus story will sometimes require us to stand in opposition to biblical texts, particularly those texts that uphold life diminishing cultural mores and practices, as well as texts that support God sanctioned violence.
The Bible is not an answer book, but it can prompt us to ask the right questions if we approach it honestly, openly, and truthfully, grounded in the inclusive love and restorative justice of Christ.
The Bible is not literally the Word of God, but it can be a life generating medium through which a living Word of God can come, if we read it critically, discerningly, and spiritually through the lens of the greatest story ever told.
And that makes the Good Book good for a lot.
(This reflection was adapted from Chapter 1, “But the Bible Says . . .” of my book, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith).
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister/teacher and author of The Good News According to Jesus: A New Kind of Christianity for a New Kind of Christian. He blogs at A Fresh Perspective.