Reading the Bible and the Bible Reading You
Joshua Graves is the lead minister for the Otter Creek Church in suburban Nashville, TN. He is author of The Feast (2009), Heaven on Earth (2012), and How Not To Kill a Muslim (2015). You can follow Josh on twitter@joshgraves.
At some point, being a Jesus person means you gotta read the Bible.
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately (this topic seems to come up over and over and over again) about how different groups of North American Christians read the Bible. To be fair, some don’t read the Bible. At all. My friend Randy Harris frequently says, at times, “I feel it is as if I’m talking about a book only one of us has read.” This not meant to be a slam. It’s simply an observation that some (many?) are influenced more by The Wall Street Journal,FOX/CNN, or The Bachelor than sacred scripture. Listening to someone else (teacher, preacher, writer) talk about/describe/engage the Bible is great but it is not the same thing as an individual digging into scripture, in community, wrestling with meaning, context, application, and so on. Still, of those who read the Bible or used to read the Bible and keep playing certain verses and interpretations of said verses on a loop . . . these groups need moments when it’s okay to be critical of “how” we read. Or how we don’t read. Or how we used to read. I don’t mean critical as in “negative” I mean critical as in “it is time to take a closer look and examine.”
It seems that–in the circles I run in at least–there are at least four ways the Bible is being read in the local church. While I despise labels, I don’t know another way to do this. I will simply provide a) a description and b) key players/voices. If I had more space, I’d talk about strengths/weaknesses/key Biblical passages. All four ways have a wide variety of voices, texture, layers, and nuance. Some people/themes/writings cross over, covering more than one category. No label is meant to be pejorative or negative, simply descriptive, and truth-telling. I’m trying to take a more surgical take on not whether we read the Bible, but how we read the Bible once we pick it up and store it in our mind for years to come.
If you don’t think this conversation is important, spend five minutes with this study that the Baylor School of Religion, and recognize the divergent views of God that dominate so much of life in these United States. Our view of God and our reading of the Bible are intricately connected. As President Lincoln noted, we read from the same Bibles and pray to the same God and, yet, come to very different conclusions. Think about these as a continuum, not so much “hard and fast” boxes. I sincerely believe that each view has strengths and weaknesses. As leaders, we ignore either at our own peril. Plus, this provocative teacher is up to 60 something aspects of reading the Bible. I kept my list to 4. You’re welcome.
VIEW #1: FUNDAMENTALIST or BASIC (The Bible is read as a rule-book for living a godly life before a watching judge.)
God is a judge with holy (sometimes angry) and wrathful disposition towards sinful humanity. Jesus saved humanity. Though he loves us, God’s anger burns towards humanity because of continual evil and wicked ways.
The Holy Bible was given via dictation theory or celestial possession. The Holy Spirit literally dictated every single detail. The autographs (original sections of the Bible) and copies are perfect, infallible and inerrant. Every word in Scripture is historically, theologically accurate. The Bible is accessible for any person to understand in a rational and logical approach. It’s not enough to say the Bible in “inspired and authoritative” . . . one must also believe the Bible is infallible, inerrant, and perfect. The Bible is God’s direct instruction manual to all people for all time for how to live before God. Some of the key players/voices: John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Southern Baptist Convention, Albert Mohler, authors of the Left Behind Series (Jenkins and LaHaye).
VIEW #2: EVANGELICAL (The Bible is read as a collection of timeless principles for morality and conversion in a dark and corrupt world.)
The Bible is the Word of God for the people of God. It contains the timeless truths of God’s heart that need to be communicated and shared with all people. While the copies of the Biblical manuscripts might possess some tension/uncertainty, the autographs (originals) are perfect, infallible, and inerrant. The primary role of the Bible is to save people from their sin and hell, providing the road map for any person to spend eternity with God. God’s primary way of communicating to humanity is through the sacred scriptures. It’s the most important tool we have for understanding God. Some in this camp will greatly stress the power of the Spirit to use the timeless truths of the Bible to provide a practical guide for everyday decisions. Some key voices/leaders: Rick Warren, Bill Hybels, Andy Stanley, Tim Keller, Max Lucado, Billy Graham, Beth Moore, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes.
VIEW #3: THIRD WAY (The Bible is read an unfolding drama inviting all people to participate in the work of God in the world.)
God is the creative father who seeks to pull all women and men out of darkness into living the Kingdom of God now in preparation for the fullness of the new heavens and the new earth.
Because the church came before the New Testament, this group is inclined to call the Bible the word of God and reserve the phrase the “Word of God” for only Jesus (word does not = Word). Rather, the Bible reveals the Word. The Bible is the word of God in that it is trust-worthy, powerful, and effective in leading people to a living encounter with the power and mystery of Jesus in the world. It is the sacred drama of God, in which we are mere B actors, and Jesus is the main character. While God is revealed in a myriad of ways (creation, art, music, friendship), scripture is unique in that it derives its authority from the witness of catholic orthodox stream of disciples and the local church. The power of the Spirit is at work taking ink on a page, and bringing us closer to the Jesus who holds all creation together. The Bible is the mirror that shows us who God is and who we are. It is not to be worshiped or made an idol as it did not create us, sustain us, die for us, etc. It’s simply the tool God uses in conjunction with all of the other revelations to bring us closer to God’s intent for the world: faithful discipleship, resistance to the powers of this present age (communal). Christ’ presence in the world is both powerful and mysterious and the Bible is a key tool God uses in that endeavor of discovery. This group resists using infallible and inerrant because a) they are not words that show up in Scripture and b) are tied to stale debates between faith and science. This group takes seriously the role of the Bible as it relates to inspiration and authority but refuses to divorce these two words from the main purpose of the Bible, further revelation of the person of Jesus. Key voices/leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr. Karl Barth, Scot McKnight, N.T. Wright, Lauren Winner, Sarah Coakley, Bonhoeffer, James Smith, Walter Brueggemann, Barbara Brown Taylor, Chuck Campbell, Walter Wink Richard Hays, Ian Cron, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Oh, yeah. Bono.
VIEW #4: HUMANIST (The Bible is an inspiring document with varying levels of relevancy for coping with life in the modern world.)
(Here, I’m not using humanist in a decidedly negative fashion) God is whoever you think God to be or were taught God to be. If God exists at all. The “God” pursuit is almost exclusively subjective. In this view, the Bible, like the Qur’an, Torah, the writings of Baha’ll’a, and Bhagavad Gita, is simply one more sacred collection of spiritual moral writings meant to speak to life’s deep experiences of pain. While mostly the product of human engineering and imagination, the Bible is important because of its link to history, meaning, purpose, and identity. Not meant to be literal or pure history, the Bible functions as an important narrative for understanding the values and linguistic emphases of many modern westerners. Full of inspiration, the Bible’s authority should be regarded with great suspicion. It can be however, a guide-book for remarkable standards of ethics.
The widest group, the HUMANIST camp, ranges from Liberal Christians to passionate Atheists. “It [the Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies,” Mark Twain.
Key players/voices: Richard Rohr, Bart Erhman, Christopher Hitchens, the New Atheists, A.J. Levine, Post-Christian Americans and Europeans, Richard Rohr, Marcus Borg, Mark Twain, and Richard Dawkins. This is the most diverse list of all four categories. I probably needed five categories but ran out of time (pastors have deadlines too).
Had to share this beauty in conclusion. Because, in a sense, everyone does this. Everyone who reads the Bible. Or used to read the Bible.