Another Look: How the Bible “Works” Today
Today I’d like to discuss how I think Scripture “works” in our lives today — we who live so far removed from the events it records and who live in a vastly different time and culture.
First of all, we must be willing to recognize that anyone who begins to take Scripture seriously is immediately immersed in historical questions and questions about the nature of the Bible itself.
In the churches and groups where I’ve been (primarily evangelical/fundamentalist), I don’t think this has been appreciated. Very little thought was ever given to how we came to have the Bible, how and when it was composed and edited, who the audiences were that first received the sacred writings, and how the various parts of the Bible carry on conversations with each other, reflecting diversity and development in the biblical message.
My experiences have led me to lament the Biblical illiteracy of our congregations, and that includes a lack of the most basic understanding of what kind of book the Bible is and isn’t. Most conservative evangelicals have a simplistic Sunday School grasp on the nature of Scripture. It is God’s Word, first of all, and so we tend to approach it with kid gloves, as though saying “God said it” is enough. As though God merely dropped it from heaven. As though every page and every story and poem was not forged in the blood, sweat, and tears of people who believed but needed help for their unbelief. As though the Bible has no human backstory that brought it to us. As though we could merely dust off its historical and cultural and literary characteristics and discover a purely divine message shining beneath.
Out of this naivete, we fail to appreciate the diversity of genres in Scripture and so we read its apocalyptic literature and poetry with the same literalistic mindset as when reading its historical narratives. We tend to think anything resembling historical narrative must be actual reporting of events, and we have little patience for anyone who suggests some of these might be folk tales or stories designed to make us think, laugh, or engage in discussion with one another. We flatten Scripture and fail to recognize the progress of revelation and the fact that some Scriptures are more significant than others in contributing to the overall message.
I’m not saying every church ought to be like a seminary, and every Christian a serious student of historical criticism, rhetorical criticism, literary theory, Ancient Near East history, Second Temple Judaism, life in the Greco-Roman world, and the traditions of interpretation throughout church history. However, our pastors and teachers ought to be acquainted with such matters and engaged in continuing education about them, and the church must learn not to be afraid of any learning that helps us understand the people, events, and backgrounds of the biblical story better, even if we end up being forced to reexamine some of our long held pet interpretations.
This is only one level of engaging Scripture, however, and for the vast majority of Christians, exposure to such robust and well-informed biblical and theological study will have to come through their teachers and pastors. For their part, the church’s teachers should have as one of their goals making this kind of instruction clear, understandable, and interesting so that believers can move beyond a Sunday School perspective on Scripture.
My own life, for example, has been enriched immeasurably by coming to understand more about the nature of the Tanakh (the Old Testament). Knowing that it was gathered, compiled, at least partially composed, edited, and put together after the Exile in Babylon by people who were trying to come to grips with their identity before God and in the world after having suffered such devastation has opened up a multitude of new insights for me as I read it. The Bible has a human backstory — it is not just divine truth dropped from heaven.
And I think this is where we can make a statement about how the Bible is designed to “work” in our lives.
If we take the life-settings of Scripture, the contexts in which God has acted in the past, seriously…
And if we take the authors and compilers and editors of Scripture seriously, recognizing that they worked in specific settings for particular purposes, to bring a word from God to people who needed to hear it in their context…
Then, we will recognize that the Bible is not a theological textbook characterized primarily by propositional doctrines and ethical instructions written to a universal audience, but a family story, a narrative about particular people in particular times and places who experienced God in the midst of their lives and communities.
This means that much of the Bible was not written to us directly, but it was written for us, and for all who are part of God’s family. This is our family story. It has been given as a means of shaping our identity and forming our lives in the world.
The Bible “works” in our lives when, through an ongoing process of understanding, internalizing, and contemplating our family story, we embrace our identity as God’s people and seek to live out the family identity in our own time and place.
The main way in which we approach the Bible, then, is not as students, but as heirs together.
The main way we look at the Bible is as a living ancestral record, a story which is continuing in our lives.
The main tools we use are meditation, imagination, discussion, and commemoration.
Our churches build the life of the community around an ongoing immersion in the story.
There may be other ways of doing this, but I’ve found nothing better than being part of a congregation that keeps the annual Church Calendar with a variety of celebrations and customs, following lectionaries and other guides to Scripture, marking the daily hours of prayer and praying the Psalms, using contemplative Bible reading practices such as lectio divina, and participating in liturgical worship that dramatizes Christ and the Gospel every Sunday in words and sacred actions.
The Bible “works” best in a “family” way.