The Bible isn’t a bible…

A while ago Julia O’Brien had a post where she noted that in our culture we use the word “Bible” to refer to instruction manuals of all kinds.  She suggested that as long as we keep labeling the Bible as such people will think of it as an instruction manual and avoid it as literature.  She’s right of course, but there’s an even bigger problem for those of us who are Christians.  The bigger problem is that people will think of the Bible as an instruction manual and ignore it as Scripture.  No, the two things are not the same.

The Bible is a collection of a wide variety of literature which was written over a very long period of history (hundreds of years).  The primary unifying qualities of the Bible are that it all has to do with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and that over the course of time these books came to be thought of as revelatory literature by the broad community of faith.  That is to say, the Bible is about God and it was “chosen” (not in the sense of one time conscious decision, but in the sense of a long and organic progression) by the Church.  The consequence of this is that the Bible has many witnesses that often stand in deep tension with one another.  There is tension between the prophets and the Torah, between the prophets and the lament literature, between the Apocalyptic literature and the Gospels, and between the letters of Paul and the catholic letters.  There is tension all over.  The Bible does not have one, single, easily summarized, unitary message.  It is not an instruction book.  Your Bible is not a bible.

I have heard it said that all biblical passages fall into two categories.  They are all either 1) promises, or 2) instructions.  Wrong.  Are there promises in the Bible?  Sure.  Are there instructions in the Bible?  Sure.  But there is a whole lot more as well.  There is poetry that describes pain.  There are narratives that tell tales of conflict and confusion, and of triumph and joy.  There are longing love letters.  There are instances of purest hate.  In the Bible you will find a wide variety of literary genres, a wide variety of themes, a wide variety of people, a wide variety of really almost everything.  That shouldn’t be scary, but for some reason this scares evangelicals.  It scares us so much that we aren’t allowed to critique the Bible, we aren’t allowed to ask it difficult questions.  We accept it all dogmatically because we think it’s all dogmatic, but it isn’t.  There is room to question and challenge the Bible.  Do you know how I know this?  Because the Bible questions and challenges itself.  Ezekiel questions the Torah.  Lamentations questions Deuteronomy and the great deuteronomistic history.  Jesus questions the Law, even as he says that he does not set aside even one jot of it.

The great power and theological depth of the Scripture is found within these points of tension, and again within the tension between our lives today and the various parts of this ancient collection of books.  The Bible is like a stringed instrument in this respect.  It only works because of great tension.  Stop trying to take the tension out of the Bible.  If you take away the tension, smoothing over and dumbing down and making everyingthing instructions and promises, all you get is a poorly tuned instrument and really bad music.

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Buyer Beware…

A discussion has been making the rounds regarding whether or to what degree amateur biblical scholarship is a legitimate enterprise.  You can see the relevant history (and trace the backlinks for the longer backstory) on Matthew’s page here, Jim’s here, and Doug’s here.  Though I find Jim’s position (leave the Bible to the experts alone) to be extreme, I certainly sympathize with his point.  There is an awful lot of nonsense out there that pases for “biblical scholarship.”  And it’s not just silliness like ex-firefighters chasing down the “treasure” of the Copper Scroll.  AKMA pointed to a new Bible software system the other day, and I must say that the list of “biblical scholars” who contribute to the expert videos was very worrying.  I mean, I’ve got nothing against Max Lucado, but he isn’t a Bible expert of any kind.  He’s a very good preacher, and I’m sure a good pastor, but his reflections on Scripture in his books tend to be rather shallow to be frank.  But people assume he’s an expert because he’s written and sold a lot of books.  I’ll let Jim and the others fight it out over whether Lucado is a bad guy because he hasn’t got a PhD (I tend to think not), because I want to make a slightly different point here.

As much as non-specialists can be dangerous when they spout off, the fact is that they are only dangerous if people listen to them.  The responsibility lies, in the end, with the reader to make good judgments about what is being read.  Credentials don’t equal correctness, but credentials do tell you one thing.  They tell you that the person who’s work you are reading has done his or her homework (literally).  I don’t care what anyone says, a PhD or ThD is not an easy get.  So, dear reader, if you want to know about the Bible and you want to avoid the dangers of being misled by people who may or may not know what they are talking about, let me recommend the following:

  1. Ask why the person you’re reading has the authority to say what he/she is saying.  Why are his/her ideas more valuable than your own?  Google the author, know who it is that you’re trusting.
  2. Ask where and to what degree the author is educated…and in what field for that matter (a PhD in Chemistry doesn’t make you an expert in Biblical Studies).
  3. Remember that the person who wrote the book you’re reading probably borrowed some of those ideas from other books.  Find out which ones and maybe read them too.
  4. Get to know an expert personally and ask that person for advice.  Most of the churches I’ve been a part of over the years have had at least one or two professors of theology or biblical studies hiding somewhere.  If there’s nobody in your congregation, then email a prof at your local denominational seminary.  I’m betting you’d get a very cordial reply.
  5. Instead of reading popular Christian literature about Jesus or the Bible, try reading a commentary along with your regular Bible reading.  I’d recommend a very accessible series like NIV Application or Interpretation, or the New International Biblical Commentary.  I talked my wife into doing this once and she said it was one of the richest devotional experiences she’s ever had.

The long and the short of it is this: buyer beware.  Getting a book about the Bible published is no harder than getting a self-help book published, and we all know what nonsense those things can be.  If you are a Christian you should take the Bible very seriously indeed, so consider your supplimentary reading carefully as well.  And by the by, all of this goes doubly and triply so for internet sources and blogs (including this one…I don’t consider myself an expert on anything yet).

Surprised by the Successes…

Michael Halliday, the renowned linguist, once wrote: “[Rather] than being surprised at the failures [of language], given the complexity of modern cultures, it seems to me we should be surprised at the successes.” – Language, context, and text, pg. 9.

We so often become upset, even angry, that we are misunderstood.  The fact is, it takes only a very little time studying the theoretical structure of language before one starts to realize that it is a miracle of the most profound order that anybody understands anything said by anybody else at all.  Human language is a cultural sign-system of such monumental complexity that studying linguistics (that is, studying the nature of language) is one of the more difficult philosophical and socio-scientific tasks out there.  But for all of that, the fact remains that language works in the world every second of every day.  You are using language right now, in order to read this post.  Though you, whoever you are, are nowhere near me right now, you understand me.  Even the errors of grammar that are likely present in this post matter very little.  Your mind is simply too fluent, to magnificent, to be stopped by what should, by all accounts, be an all but impossible task.

So perhaps we should be slower to anger when we are misunderstood.  Perhaps we should be more joyful when we feel that another person has grasped what it was that we meant.  Let us not be surprised by our communicative failures, but let us be surprised, and delighted, by our successes.