Did a big fish really swallow Jonah? It might surprise some to hear that this is probably the question about the Bible I am asked most frequently. At first it seems like a rather strange point for so many to worry about—after all, the closest most people I know get to fish on an average week is the Bumblebee cans in the grocery store aisle.
“When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight.” (Jeremiah 15:16)
“I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.” (Job 23:12)
“Jesus answered, ‘People do not live on bread on alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)
“Solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:14)
It’s become a matter of course to compare God’s Word/words to food. The metaphor suggests something of our understanding of the vital role of God’s Word our lives—it nourishes, strengthens, sustains, and, for optimal health, requires regular partaking. We often say we go to church on Sundays to “get fed” (suggesting the pastor as highly-trained gourmet chef or, perhaps more frequently, as greasy-haired burger-flipper). This once a week (or month) spiritual binge-meal is generally supplemented by spiritual ‘snacks’ in the form of Christian radio soundbites, 5-minute daily devotional books, and the occasional Facebook rant.
Note: The following entry is reproduced from a “promo” for a one-day leadership clinic on teaching the Bible that I will be facilitating at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (Elkhart, IN) this January. If you are interested in learning more, or in registering for the event, go to http://www.ambs.edu/churchleadershipcenter/Leadership-Clinics.cfm
Chances are, I don’t need to convince you there’s a biblical illiteracy problem in the church today. If your congregation is anything like mine (and it is), you probably already know. As a visiting teacher and preacher, I’ve become accustomed to virtual strangers sliding up to me after events and confessing in the whisper of their darkest secret. “I don’t read the Bible anymore”—frequently it’s church elders, even pastors speaking—“Can I say that out loud…?”
Questions. They are, in a sense, the engine that drives the study of the Bible.
As a student, I was taught to ask three key interpretative questions when encountering tough passages of Scripture. I in turn teach these same questions to others who are learning to read the Bible:
(1) What is the literary context surrounding this passage? (In other words, how does this passage fit within the broader story? What is going on before and after it?)
(2) What historical information might help me better understand what is going on here? (For example, are there key words or customs referenced that I’m not familiar with?)
(3) Why might the Israelites (or the early church) have chosen to hold onto this story?
So how does the Bible’s story change when we read outward from the center-point of Christ?
We learn that the Bible is a story of God acting in history, of God engaging with humans and of humans learning how to engage with God. And we learn that the Bible tells this story with raw honesty: sometimes we humans get it, and sometimes we really don’t.
For many Christians, the most perplexing problem of biblical interpretation involves the relationship between the two testaments. This is hardly a uniquely modern dilemma. Since the very earliest days of the canon’s formation, Christians have wrestled with apparent tension between specific portrayals of God in the Old Testament and Jesus’ revelation of God in the New. These tensions are sometimes even felt within the bounds of the individual testaments.
A prominent banner hung on the sanctuary wall of a church I occasionally attended as a child. It declared in bold block letters: “BIBLE: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.”
Like many Christians, for years I took for granted the assumptions that underlie this canny acrostic: first, that the primary end of the Bible (as with the rest of religion) is to see us safely off this corrupted planet, and second, that the Bible serves this purpose by laying down enough rules to help us avoid serious disasters in the interim.
Sometimes I think of it like this:
A small cabin sits in the midst of a vast forest. The cabin is simple and familiar. It’s composed of the usual clutter that makes up life—dishes and tools and television and bills and emails awaiting response. The forest outside the cabin is wild and wonderful and strange. It’s filled with sunny glens and cool, quiet clefts, with delicate flowers that spring up new every day and cedars that tower with the wisdom of ages. The forest stretches out in every direction for miles beyond counting.
This cabin is the whole world as most of us know it. It is the material of our normal, daily human realities. The forest is the infinite and eternal life of God. It is the total of Reality of all that truly Is.
I suggested in a previous post (“The Word that Does”) that Scripture may best be described by verbs which express its capacity for action, that the question “What is it?” may be far less defining than the question “What does it do?”
It’s probably clear I feel a bit of unease with the technical terms often imposed upon Scripture. The constant temptation of theology of any stripe is to try to say too much. We too often fail to recognize where truth may best be served by a kind of reverent silence, by a kind of ‘unknowing’ of all our human categories. Systemizations, though they serve our longings for order and control, are invariably reductions. They shave off all the rough and delightful edges of the world where mystery dances with the holy freedom of God. I feel a great deal of respect for those jagged edges as the places where God is met and true wisdom grows.
In many ways, the more I learn, the less I feel inclined to say.
In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles at the banks of the Jabbok with an unknown man. The most he achieves from a whole night of struggle is a stalemate. But Jacob refuses to let go, and as reward for his persistence, he receives three things: a new name, a blessing, and a permanent limp. Jacob begs to know the identity of the one he’s wrestled with, and the man refuses to answer. Despite this fact, looking back on this enigmatic encounter, Jacob dares to declare that he has somehow met God face to face.
This story describes the experience of encountering Scripture more accurately than any other I’ve ever heard. Continue reading The Word that Does (part 2)
Allow me to start with a moment of pure honesty: The Bible baffles me. In fact, the more I study it, the worse things seem to get. There was one glorious day somewhere around my 16th year of life when I felt pretty sure I had the whole thing mastered.
Then I started to read it a second time, and it’s been downhill ever since.