Calvary Unplugged: What Is the Bible?
We’ve been making our way through a list of basic questions about our faith and practice around here lately…why? Well, because it’s always good to revisit the things we assume everyone knows or thinks but probably most of us are wondering about.
This summer worship series, Calvary Unplugged, is giving us a unique opportunity to talk amongst ourselves in the context of worship, to revisit some of these topics, and to hear from each other. Today’s topic is a nice, tiny, concise one about which I can tell you everything in under 15 minutes.
Today our vast question for consideration is: what is the Bible?
What is the Bible? Seriously?
What a question.
So, I thought we might begin this morning with a short, informal poll. What do you know about the Bible? Anyone? When was it written? Who wrote it? How many different versions are there? How many books are there in the Bible? What language was it originally written in? Can you name the books—in order? How many disciples can you name?
Ah, the Bible. Gotta love talking about it! Besides unexpected polls about your biblical literacy, how does the Bible usually come into conversation in your daily life?
The more I thought about that question from the perspective of my context as a pastor in Washington, DC and a follower of Jesus in 2011, my immediate response to the question “What is the Bible?,” I realized, is a defensive one.
In other words, if you asked me to tell you what the Bible is, I find that I will almost immediately proceed to telling you, instead, what the Bible is NOT.
Modern perception about the Bible has been colored, of course, by increasing secularization and a general ignorance of the Bible. This has changed quite a bit from even just 50 years ago, when American culture was so steeped in biblical references and church attendance that, even if you were the more committed unbeliever on the block, you probably had a fair level of biblical literacy. Today, not so much.
As I was thinking about this question this week, I revisited Peter Gomes’ great book about the Bible, The Good Book. He cites a recent Barna Group poll of Americans in which: 10% of the respondents thought that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, 16% thought that the Gospel of Thomas was in the New Testament, 38% were sure that the Old and New Testaments were written a few years after Jesus’ death, 10% thought that Moses was one of Jesus’ disciples.
And even Jay Leno did when he was still on late night TV, polled his audience to ask if anyone could name one of the Ten Commandments. When nobody could, he then asked if anyone could name the members of The Beatles. Everybody knew! George, Paul, John, and Ringo, of course.
And, what happens when we don’t really know much about something and cede our perceptions to people who are ready and willing to offer us definitions?
Well, in step those who think in fundamental, black and white terms, and because we don’t know, we believe what they say. A lot of people often end up assuming knowledge that is, well, completely incorrect. We start believing about the Bible, for example, that it is a history book. We might believe that, to be a Christian one must take every word of the Bible literally. We might believe that the Bible promotes slavery or war, that the earth was created in 6 days, or that women should keep silent in the church….
See what I mean about the compulsion, rather than feeling free to declare what the Bible is, to instead constantly be saying what it’s not?
So I thought today we’d try to answer the question “What is the Bible?” together by talking about what the Bible is. (And since the whole three points worked so well last week, I’ve got three today, too.)
As you know, when we hear the Gospel read in worship at Calvary, the person reading usually says: “This is the Gospel of Christ” and we respond, “Thanks be to God.” In many Methodist churches, the tradition is a little different. Whenever any part of the Bible is read aloud the reader will say, “The word of God for the people of God,” to which the congregation responds, “Thanks be to God.”
The word of God for the people of God.
The Bible is our holy book, and it’s okay to say that. It’s a sacred text. Unfortunately, because of how the Bible has been used…to hurt, exclude, even kill, sometimes we hesitate to claim its holiness. But think about it: for thousands of years, this book has survived in some form or another, and people of faith have used it as a tool for talking about God to each other and to the world around them. It’s a holy book—it’s our holy book, and for that reason alone it demands our respect and thoughtful attention.
Where’s your Bible? Do you read it? You should.
I asked a couple of folks in our community of faith to demonstrate for us this morning. Earlier in the week I sent out a list of questions and asked folks to think about what their responses might be, to share with us all. The questions were:
The Bible first became important to me when…
I read the Bible because…
This verse/passage in the Bible is meaningful to me because…
How I view the Bible in my life now…
The Bible is the word of God for the people of God, and it’s a book we must take seriously.
Earlier this week we decided to host a Disney movie marathon at our house. It’s summertime, after all, so it seemed like it would be fun to stay up late watching movie after movie, devouring popcorn, and singing along. We watched four in a row starting with Beauty and the Beast and ending with The Lion King. Had we seen the movies before? Of course we had. Many times. And not only had we seen them before, almost all of us could definitely sing along with every single song, and, more than that, we could speak the dialog along with the characters. So, if we’d seen the movies before, so many times that we could reenact the movies ourselves, the question arises: why watch at all? There are tons of movies we have not seen; we could have watched some new ones.
The reason we wanted to watch, of course, was because of the power of a story.
Stories have power…they give us a way to connect with each other using the tool of a shared story. And the most powerful stories are those that speak to the deepest and most powerful experiences of human living—the things we have in common even though we are all completely different from each other.
The Bible has that very same power. It’s a collection of stories that make up one big story, that collectively helps all of us know and tell our own individual stories. What’s your favorite Bible story? When did you first learn it? Do you know a song about it…?
Stanley Hauerwas, professor atDukeDivinitySchool, has based his whole entire career on talking about the story of faith we live. He’s known for terrifying his students with phrases like: “The story we claim through the narrative of scripture is the story we had before we ever knew we had a story.”
You know those theologians love to stump the rest of us.
But what he’s trying to say is that there’s something powerful about a story. In telling and hearing our stories we find connections with each other and connections to truths that are bigger than ourselves. We need to tell the story of faith again and again and again…to remind ourselves that God is well at work in our lives and in our world, and to discover again how we can be part of the ongoing story of God’s work in the world.
The Bible is our story of faith; we must be steeped in that story to find ourselves within the context of God’s ongoing relationship with the whole world. We need to tell the story and hear the story over and over and over again until we can sing along with the lyrics and repeat the dialog in our sleep, until it becomes our story.
A third thing I would like to affirm about the Bible is that it is a way in which we can engage God. Our lives are such that there is precious little time for communing with the Divine, and even if we had the time, who knows even how to begin? I don’t know about you, but I’m terrible at meditation and I have never in all of my life heard “the voice of God,” as some very spiritual people claim to have heard. I need something tangible, real, right here, to help me find a bridge to God. Because I am thoroughly and irrevocably human…not divine in the least…and sometimes I feel like any kind of holiness at all is completely out of reach.
Peter Gomes says that the Bible is “one of the most available and extraordinary means by which we are brought into proximity with the Divine.” Perhaps…no, certainly…the Bible isn’t a guidebook for deciphering God and figuring out all God’s mysteries. Instead, it’s a way in, it’s the possibility of reaching out through the muddle of this human life we live and, occasionally…touching holiness.
So, what is the Bible? The answer to that question is one we should be diligently seeking all our lives, not just on this one Sunday morning. But let’s start here. First, the Bible is our holy book, and we need to give it the attention and respect it deserves—we need to read it and know it and study it so that we can understand how it informs our faith. Second, the Bible is story—it’s the story of God’s relationship with this world, and it’s the story of our individual lives, too. In order to understand our own stories within the context of God’s love, redemption, and grace, we have to tell the story—the stories—of faith again and again. Good thing for us we have the Bible to help us hear and tell what must become OUR story of faith. And third, the Bible is connection to God. It’s one of the ways living and holy God speaks to us, continues to reveal himself to us, continues ongoing conversation with us. The Bible helps us reach out of our limited human experience and touch the divine.
So today, let’s start there. With these three affirmations of what the Bible is and can be in our lives…not apologizing for the Bible but claiming it again as a source of life. This week, everybody, it’s time to make peace with your Bibles. Will you do it?