Let's talk about the Bible, you & me. We don't have to soften our words. We can be simple about our doubts. We can feel tangled up about what it says.
After reading the Bible straight through in the last five months, I've learned, if nothing else, that it's a strange collection of books. I mean, whooooaaa, is it a strange collection or what? When you stray from its Interstate highways-- the first couple chapters, the last couple chapters, some of the Psalms, the second half of Isaiah, and pockets of the New Testament-- you find that its backroads can be discouraging & difficult to navigate.
Here are 5 takeaways from reading the whole thing, backroads included:
1) Be suspicious if the Bible agrees with you about everything.
This is one of my biggest convictions about life in general: if you can wrap your mind around something remarkably complex like the Bible or another human being, if they fit hand-and-glove with your worldview or political persuasions, then you have probably don't understand the first thing about them. If they confuse the hell out of you, if they pummel your neat categories, then you have probably just begun.
2) Horrible misreadings of the Bible are OK. (Sometimes.)
Back in my senior year of high school, I got really fond of Jeremiah 20:9: "If I say, "I will not mention him, or speak any more of his name," there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot." (esv)
As it turns out, Jeremiah was actually telling everybody, power brokers included, that their city was going to be obliterated, their trust funds snatched , their family heirlooms destroyed, and their bodies dragged by the ear to Babylon if they didn't repent of their sin & corruption. And before Jeremiah says he has to speak, he uses the language of rape to describe the LORD forcing him into a career of speaking out.
A far, far cry from telling a group of vaguely agreeing peers how good God is and what Jesus means for our daily lives in a dimly lit auditorium.
But here's the rub: that passage gave language to something I was experiencing. I had just started following Jesus, and I really, truly felt compelled beyond my own desires to speak publicly about it. And though I don't condone lazy readings and cheap applications, I also don't think the complexity of the Bible should scare us away from believing that a living God speaks to our actual lives through it, even if it's not strictly faithful to the original meaning.
3) How people experience God changes through the Bible, so I shouldn't expect my experience of God to match up with theirs.
This sounds like heresy because of a hidden belief: because the Bible is God's word, my experience of God should look like people's in the Bible.
Which people? The Bible is a compendium of people experiencing God across several millennia.
Do I experience God like the Israelites crossing through the wilderness, a cloud by day and a fire by night?
Like Hezekiah, shifty-eyed between a prophetic promise and the big bad Assyrians knock on Jerusalem's walls?
Like Jeremiah, dazed and confused as he watches God's city stamped out into dust?
Like the first disciples, half-asleep and waiting for political fireworks with the Son of God in their midst?
Like the early church, trying to piece together the meaning of their lives after a man from Galilee hung on a cross and lived to tell the story?
They were all tangled up with God. But their lives look nothing like mine. Think of the Bible like a play: our role isn't to understand the first few acts so I can mimic it, but to understand them so we can improvise the next act under the playwright's guidance.
4) Life as a Christian implies an active relationship with the Bible.
Take that analogy just a little further. If we are actors in God's drama, then ignoring the previous acts is irresponsible. To faithfully act out the story of God in your life relies upon your active engagement with that story in the Bible.
Steep yourself in the whole story, and you'll notice certain actions will feel like extensions of that story. But that's hard work, and I think a lot of our frustrations stem from believing it shouldn't be hard. HA. No, it's work that requires your full attention because our careful readings of the Bible subject our assumptions about God, people, life, and the world to intense scrutiny.
As a Christian, I read the Bible for it to ask questions of me as I do to ask questions of it. That’s because, as a Christian, I still hold this outlandish belief that behind the Bible, for all its warts, there is a living Person working through the text to make all things new.
5) Our life is a referendum on the person of Jesus.
So let's get back to you & me. There is a lot of baggage in the Bible we wouldn't mind cutting loose. We don't want to be Christian if we have to switch political parties, or believe something outlandish about the end of the world, or fill in the blank. We quickly fall into the trap that faith is an intellectual assent to a set of truths, i.e. God in three persons, Jesus died for our sins, Jesus is fully human and fully God.
1st-century Christians wouldn't have thought that way. In their world, faith was a commitment to a person or ideal. In their world, Jesus was everything they didn't expect. In their world, this Jesus rose from the dead, and they had to spend the rest of their lives figuring out what that meant. The resurrection of Jesus was such a big deal to them that they literally thought a new era of history had begun.
It's no different for us. The life of Jesus is the critical moment in the Bible, the point upon which the whole story turns. In a way, our life is an answer to who Jesus is and what his life means.