How the Bible Actually Works (Part 3)
So if the Bible isn’t a history book, at least in the modern sense, and if its intention isn’t to give us scientifically accurate information about how the universe works and was created, and it’s not a book of universal rules for all time – how then should we read the Bible in a way that's true to how it actually works?
I place a high value on biblical inspiration and authority. I believe God wants to communicate with humankind and with me personally through this book. I believe it enough to make it my practice to read a portion in the Old Testament, the New Testament letters and the Gospels every day (via a daily lectionary). I come to the text in three ways -- as Story, Shepherd, and Sacred Space. Let’s start with Story.
The Bible as Story
Joan Didion once said: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Stories give the disparate events of our lives meaning. Our stories define us. That’s not to deny at all the importance and place of God. God interacts with our lives not just at the place of our psyches but at the place of our stories. Any psychologist will tell you that our psyches are formed and shaped by our stories.
Since we’re storied creatures, it makes sense that the Bible is a storied book, and that the Bible itself would be defined by its Story. I’m not just talking about the specific stories in the Bible. Certainly these stories are interesting and instructive, but like the rules of the Bible, the stories of the Bible need to be understood in light of the overall Story. It’s this Grand Story or Meta Story that I’m referring to when I talk about the Bible as Story.
In my last post I talked about the Bible not working very well as a rule book, in part, because rules change within the Bible itself. Specific rules only make sense when viewed in light of their place in the Story because in the Bible rules are at the service of the Story, not the Story at the service of the rules. Within the Bible itself, whenever the Story takes a new turn, rules can change. We see this, for example, when the Old Covenant transitions to the New Covenant (or the Old Testament to the New Testament). The apostle Paul, for example, sees the Old Covenant law functioning as a “guardian” until Christ came. What he’s saying is that the law was never meant to be an end in itself, so it functions differently in our lives now because of where we are in the Story.
So what’s the Story? Let’s start with what the Story isn’t. The Story isn’t what God has done to save people so they can go to heaven someday. While that’s the story that seems to guide and motivate a lot of Christians, it’s way too small a story to qualify as the Story. The story about how to go to heaven isn’t even the right story. The Bible says very little about how to get to heaven. The first two thirds of the Bible, the Old Testament, doesn’t say anything at all about how to get to heaven. Its focus is almost completely on the Story that’s unfolding on earth. Even its predictions about the future deal exclusively with what God intends to do with this world.
The biblical story begins with the earth and ends with the earth. It begins with God making all things (Genesis 1:1), and it ends with God making all things new (Revelation 21:5). The most important story within the larger Story is the story of Jesus. There are four accounts of his story in the New Testament. Instead of talking about heaven, Jesus talked about the kingdom of heaven, also called the kingdom of God. He began his ministry by announcing the arrival of this kingdom, and it became the focus of his parables and miracles. He invited people to follow him so they could learn how to live in God's kingdom. He actually begins a third of his parables with the words, “The kingdom of God is like....”
When I grew up, I heard a lot about heaven but very little about the kingdom of heaven. I’m not faulting the people who taught me. They were just passing on the story they’d been told. I used to tell that story too. But looking back, I see that it was a story we imposed on the Bible. N.T. Wright suggests that it was a story influenced more by Plato than by Jesus. It was a Greek story more then a Hebrew story. Greek philosophy focused on the future of the soul, while biblical theology focuses on the future of not only our bodies but the whole creation.
The story I was taught in many ways denied the resurrection of Jesus. I’m not saying it denied that the resurrection happened; it just misunderstood what the resurrection of Jesus meant – which is that Jesus’ transformed body was the prototype of the New Creation. Instead of Jesus' resurrection being primarily about proving Jesus’ deity, it demonstrated what God intends to do with all creation – i.e. make all things new. The apostles understood this. Within weeks of Jesus’ resurrection, Peter said to the people, “Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago to his holy prophets” (Acts 3:21; see also Romans 8:18-21 and Revelation 21:5). This is how Jesus told us to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
It's true that there are hints in the New Testament that when we die, we’ll be with Jesus, who happens to be in heaven (see Acts 3:21 above) but while that’s comforting for thinking about the time between our deaths and Jesus’ return, it’s definitely not the main Story.
So back to the question – what’s the Story? Folks at The Bible Project (which I highly recommend, by the way – their videos and podcasts are amazing) say that “the Bible is a unified story that leads to Jesus.” I find this to be a simple and elegant way to describe the biblical story, and it’s definitely helpful. But what is the larger Story that Jesus is fulfilling?
I’ll try to keep my description of the Story almost as short. (Hey, anything’s possible.) Here’s my summary: the Bible is the Story of God redeeming this world until it becomes New Creation. It’s a long story of God first creating this good world and then watching it implode because of human arrogance and violence. As the story unfolds, God calls individuals and then a particular people in order to restart the story and get us back (forward) to (a new) Eden (not heaven). These attempts repeatedly falter and fail.
It becomes increasingly clear that we have a problem. The Bible often uses the word “sin” to label it. We discover that sin isn’t just disobeying certain rules or commands. Sin is a power. And it’s got us, even the best of us. The Bible’s saints all have clay feet. Jesus called sin a spiritual disease, one he came to heal (Luke 5:31). This healing would require a comprehensive treatment plan: addressing our guilt and shame through his death; our becoming Jesus’ students; the giving of his Spirit; surrounding us with a healing/missional community; and time – lots of time. Fortunately, time is something God has plenty of, as well as patience. He’s also in charge of what happens after time, and I’m glad he’s the one who is.
During his ministry, Jesus didn’t obsess over our sins. He was much more concerned about the state of our hearts. He helped us imagine a better life and better world through his healing and teaching ministry, raising the dead, calming the wind and the waves, feeding thousands of people with a boy’s lunch, and, in addition to his many other signs, his own death and resurrection. He made it clear that God was completely invested in seeing this Story through to the end. Not even our killing Jesus could stop that. Jesus’ resurrection? That was God’s exuberant fist pump. The main battle against sin, death and the devil had been won. Now it’s just a matter of time – let the New Creation begin....
Now you can see why the Bible calls this Story the Gospel or “Good News.” You might also excuse me for being more excited about the Story of the Bible than the rules of the Bible. It’s this Story that the rules serve in different ways and times. The Story isn’t the rules; the Story is what God is doing to heal and restore all things.
The Bible as Shepherd
So the Bible is a story that tells the Story. The Bible also functions as our Shepherd. When describing the Bible, Peter Enns uses a brilliant phrase – he says the Bible “shepherds us towards wisdom.” While the Bible has a relatively small number of rules, it’s chock-full of wisdom. Often you have to dig for it, like with Jesus’ parables, but it’s there for the mining. Although there are a few books in the Bible that fit a genre called “wisdom literature,” it’s more accurate to say that the entire Bible is wisdom literature, and that it uses a variety literary styles to convey this wisdom (e.g. history, poetry, proverbs, psalms, rule codes, true stories, truth stories, biography, prophetic literature, apocalyptic literature). This wisdom is both practical and theological, and gradually reveals more and more of God’s will and vision for our lives. The goal of this vision is flourishing – human flourishing and the flourishing of all creation.
The Bible shepherds us toward wisdom. It doesn’t smother us with wisdom, wisdom we wouldn’t be able to grasp. God takes into account the limitations of our understanding and cultural context, and uses the Bible to gradually shepherd us toward increasing wisdom over time. Rules tend to have a limited shelf life, or lend themselves to too many exceptions, while wisdom can be applied to a variety of situations without being locked into a particular time and space bubble. Wisdom is capable of adapting and expanding.
This is how I believe we’re meant to view the rules and laws in the Bible – as potential sources of wisdom. Sometimes the wisdom stands right on the surface: for example, the law to love our neighbor as our self. Or when Micah writes: “He has showed you, O people, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (6:8). At other times, wisdom is hidden beneath the surface, like when the Israelites were prohibited from wearing tattoos or multi-fiber clothing, or when Paul tells the women in the Corinthian church to wear a head covering or slaves to obey their masters. Often, by examining these prohibitions within their cultural context, and within the textual context of Scripture, we discover a deeper wisdom that still applies today, even if the surface command or rule is no longer the best way to express that wisdom.
Sometimes the wisdom is easily accessible, like when the apostle Paul tells all his readers to submit themselves to one another, just before he tells wives to submit to their husbands. (Note that he asks something even more demanding of husbands: “Love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her....”) In other words, in God's kingdom we all submit and sacrifice and serve. This includes even God: Moses convinces God to change his mind (Exodus 32:14); Jesus says that he came not to be served, but to serve, and to lay down his life as a ransom for many. So beneath or around a command that grates against our values or our modern sensitivities is often a wisdom that challenges and moves us forward. The practical living out of this wisdom evolves over time and within different cultures. But the trajectory is clear – toward increasing freedom and equality for everyone, even as we seek to serve one another like Christ.
It’s because the wisdom isn’t always obvious that Tim at The Bible Project refers to the Bible as meditation literature. The Bible’s texts need to be meditated upon again and again, using all the imaginative resources and study tools at our disposal. Ideally, it should often be meditated upon in community. (That's why within my community we always discuss the text together, including on Sunday mornings.) Even when the surface command is clearly obsolete, there is almost always underlying wisdom we can benefit from and apply today. It may take some digging to find it. In fact, it may take years, even centuries, in some cases, to rediscover it. Fortunately, there is plenty of wisdom that’s closer to the surface to keep any and all of us learning and being transformed for the rest of our lives.
So the Bible shepherds us towards wisdom. It also shepherds us towards wisdom. A proper reading of the Bible isn’t just personal. My reading of the Bible isn’t just for my own good, but for the common good. Because of our individualistic culture, we tend to neglect one of the Bible’s primary purposes: building beautiful and diverse communities. Yes, personal transformation needs to happen for healthy communities to develop and grow. Within the Story of the Bible God is continually seeking to raise up for himself a people. His vision for humanity is both individual and corporate, and ultimately includes all of creation.
The Bible as Sacred Space
So the Bible works best when we view it as Story and as Shepherd. Finally, we should view it as Sacred Space. We need community to read the Bible well, but we also need God himself to help us read the Bible. The Bible is one of the primary places we meet God. I’m not just talking about encountering God’s words. The Bible is Sacred Space because we hope to encounter God himself there while reading, listening, waiting, meditating, imagining, studying, discussing. In other words, the Bible isn’t meant to be a standalone book. Jesus didn’t just say, “Follow my teaching.” He said, “Follow me.” It’s personal, relational, and it occurs, among other places, in this most important of places called Scripture. Other places to meet God are also amazing and wonderful. But it’s how we encounter God in Scripture that informs our understanding of who this God is that we encounter in other places.
Meanwhile, the Story is still going on. When Jesus drew apart to be with God in a variety of sacred spaces, it was so that he could be guided and refreshed for his part in the Story – the Story of God redeeming this world until it becomes New Creation. So we keep coming back to the Story in order to play our part. As we experience this Christmas season, we’re reminded of a key event in that Story – God becoming human flesh. He has bound his life with our lives now. At the end of Jesus’ earthly journey, he ascended with his transformed physical body into heaven. Later he gives his Spirit to his followers, further binding his life with our lives. Clearly God is fully invested in what happens to this world going forward. So in spite of all the crises facing us personally, nationally and globally, it’s not at all foolish to be hopeful about the future.
Maybe some of this will be useful for your own reading of the Bible. In my next post I’ll begin to talk about how what we’ve learned so far in this series can inform how we think about same-sex marriage. I think we’re ready to look to the Bible for help now – now that we know how it actually works.