From time to time people tell me that “this year I am going to get into the Bible!” Music to my ears! Their declaration is quickly followed by something akin to “So, what should I do?” Maybe next week I will take a shot at answering that question, but for now let me tell how not to read the Bible!
I would offer you six basic principles to keep in mind:
- The Law is the Law is the Law
- Blessings are blessings are blessings
- It’s not about you.
- The jigsaw puzzle
- One book does not say it all.
- The Bible is a collection of stories
The Law is the Law is the Law. For many people, the Bible is a book of rules, regulations, and laws that must be obeyed or enforced that apply to every, any, and all situations. The problem is that this simplistic approach is the near occasion of legalism that can reduce faith to a list of “Do’s” and “Do Nots.” What happens next is that we become selective about which commands we will follow and which we will ignore – and I am not speaking about the outlandish ones found in Leviticus. For example, consider this: “Your adornment should not be an external one: braiding the hair, wearing gold jewelry or dressing in fine clothes (1 Peter 3:3)” Soon you either blindly follow every perceived rule and regulation without consideration (“the Bible says it and that’s good enough for me) or you set yourself up as the arbiter of what is true, good, and necessary.
Blessings are blessings are blessings. In the 16th Century, Robert Estienne annotated the Bible with chapters and verses. In making Scripture verses universal and easy, it also made it much simpler to locate and study a specific passage. The unintended consequence was to make it possible to lift short passages, sentences, and/or phrases out of their context. “Any text with a context is just a pretext for what you believed in the first place.” It is then easy to forget these blessings or promises emerge from a real life story from a broken world with lots of tough days. Focusing on blessings and promises alone leads to a selective view of Scripture. It might make you feel the warm fuzzies all the time, but the Bible is also meant to afflict the comfortable.
It’s not about you. Rorschach Ink Blot tests aren’t pictures of anything, yet what we see in them perhaps tells us more about us than the blot of ink. Scripture shares one attribute with the ink blot: Many people tend to project their own ideas onto biblical texts rather than read what is actually there. Instead of being swept into the Bible’s story and having your world turned topsy-turvey, we are amazed at just how much we are like Jesus! And so, we sweep Jesus into our story.
The jigsaw puzzles. Some people see the Bible as some sort of a giant jigsaw puzzle. They hold that God scattered different facts all throughout Scripture and all of these truths need to be captured and packed into nifty little categories. So, these pieces are put together into a system without ambiguity that explains God, humanity, creation, and history. The inherent problem here though is much like the ink blot results, there is a risk of creating a theology that fits right into their preconceived ideas. One of the blessings of modern Biblical scholarship is that Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, Pentecostal, and more faith traditions collaborate and we come to appreciate that we have not yet begun to plumb the depths of Scripture’s meanings. Another denomination’s emphasis just might be the next piece that brings the whole picture into focus.
One book does not say it all. Some people tend to have a favorite book of the Bible and they attempt to interpret every other part of the Bible through the lens of that particular book. Liberation Theologians tend to look to Exodus, Pentecostals to Acts, and Reformed Theologians and pastors to the book of Romans. Some constantly appeal to the four Gospels and how they point to the kingdom of God, yet they shy away from the most prolific of New Testament authors, Paul, because he doesn’t write about the kingdom. So, as expected, they force the epistles to fit into the Gospels only through their lens. And, it’s just as bad when the only knowledge of Jesus one will recognize is if it’s read through Paul’s writings only.
The Bible as Story. And my very strong advice: don’t start at Genesis and then read page after page through your bible until you get to the end of Revelation. The Bible is a collection of stories. In fact the very name biblia is itself plural: “books.” Ultimately the Bible is a collection of stories that weave together the most important story: God’s revelation of God’s self to us. From Genesis to Revelation, there is a story to be read, but read rightly. Let the story shape us rather than our working to shape the story.
Next week: if this is “what not to do” – next up is “How to read the Bible”