27. How the Bible Can Remain an Unexpected Pleasure
Hello there! Welcome to the Journey On podcast. I’m Dave Schmelzer.
So last time we began a look at some big topics which have been central to most of my churchgoing friends, but which might have become less helpful as the years went by for them, and so which might be ripe for some fresh considering from the Journeying perspective we talk about here.
So last time we kicked this off with a look at maybe the biggest such topic of all--Jesus--and how a connection with Jesus can weather the sorts of storms so many of my friends have experienced in and out of churches.
As we chatted about that in our online groups, I got the feedback that, yes, this sort of reconsidering was really helpful but that, while we were on the subject, it would be even more helpful if we could follow up that conversation by looking at a next topic which was just as central as Jesus to these folks in their earlier faith lives, but which often felt spoiled for them now--the Bible.
So, being the responsive person that I am, today we’ll consider things like:
- To start with, how the Bible has been colossally shaping to me,
- But then why it so often gets ruined, maybe irredeemably ruined, for so many longtime churchgoers.
- We’ll look at how a central evangelical teaching about the Bible turns out to be particularly damaging and unreflective about how Christians throughout history haven’t taken its advice.
- We’ll talk about how one’s stage of faith colors how one teaches the Bible in ways that, unacknowledged, often backfire.
- We’ll look at some historic correctives to that problem, including a famous one from John Wesley.
- And we’ll consider how most of us have overlooked how Jesus himself read and discussed the Bible that was available to him--and how noticing that can help us out.
- We’ll think about famously challenging questions about the Bible like why it can take a thousand or two thousand years for some of its teachings to seem obvious--like that slavery is bad, for instance.
- And we’ll close with what to me was a powerful and unexpected bit of advice from the Psalms that has made a big difference for me.
So that’s where we’re headed!
Before we launch in, if you like Journey On, let me mention that you might enjoy one of our online groups where, each week, we get key coaching along the lines of the spirituality we talk about here, and we get to meet new friends who love this stuff and who live in several countries. They’re pretty dynamic, in my experience. You could try one on Wednesdays at 6pm Pacific time, on Sundays at 3:30pm Pacific time, or on Mondays during the day at 11am Pacific time, which we’ve found works best for some of our international friends.
You can check one out even this week by email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about how to get connected.
That said, kick us off, RyanHood, for How the Bible Can Remain an Unexpected Pleasure.
[RyanHood theme music.]
I am SO grateful and delighted to have spent SO much time reading and thinking about the Bible. So while I might be inflating this a bit, I did the math about how much Bible reading I’ve done by chapter. I came up with having read all the of the Bible perhaps 65 times. So, you know, even if I’m off a bit, that’s at least taking a good-faith pass at it.
In our Seek class, we talked to newbies--again from an evangelical perspective--about what to hope for by virtue of reading the Bible.
- 1600 years of stories relating to God.
- An emphasis on relationship rather than rules.
- A surprising ability to speak to your situation at key moments.
We also mentioned that three things are called “the word of God” in the Bible. (1) The Bible. (2) Jesus. (3) God speaking directly to us.
Amen to all of that!
I feel very conversant with the Bible, and it often comes up in conversations that Grace and I have about many things.
One cost of the specificity of our focus here has been less focus on key perspectives that Grace and I assume.
So, thinking at random:
- Let your yes be yes and your no be no. All else comes from evil.
- Forgive 7 times 70 times.
- God makes us more than conquerors because he loves us.
- Show hospitality to the stranger, because by doing so some have entertained angels unawares.
- You do not have because you do not ask.
My imagination has been shaped for sure by all that Bible reading and my view of my place in the world as well.
So now let me offer some “that said’s” and this will be me speaking candidly, so I hope it proves helpful!
Many of my friends who have left churches, particularly evangelical churches, describe themselves as burned out on the Bible. They no longer read it devotionally or pretty much for any other reason.
Why is that?
I think it’s because a central evangelical teaching turns out, at least for them, to be untrue and unhelpful. Which is that reading the Bible, in itself, will give us spiritual growth. And the more we read--read, say, an hour a day!--the more growth! I know so many people who have given themselves to that plan for years and years, only to burn out on it without the promised benefits. And it seems worth noting that the vast majority of faithful people in history have read very little to none of the Bible--it wasn’t, for instance, in print. Or they were illiterate.
Bible reading as a devotional act only has existed since the late-1800s and has only been widely available since the early 1900s. When Luther and the reformers talked about sola scriptura, they weren’t thinking that the average person would have any interaction with this--not being literate or having access to a Bible. They were talking about people like themselves. The average Christian has always gone straight to God.
Additionally, how the Bible is dogmatically interpreted causes many people problems.
So I’ve talked about the stages of faith. Stage 2, the conservative stage, definitionally needs “true” interpretations, but then consistently finds itself in the rut of defending the indefensible--slave-holding and women being silent in churches and gay people not being valued like other people and the evils of intermarriage and birth control and on and on and on. And Stage 3, the progressive stage, then swoops in to point out the key teachings of the Bible that Stage 2 ignores--the care for the stranger and so on. Which is right?
The reality is, it seems to me, that interpretation entirely comes from the mindset you start with. Conservative believers see conservative-believer realities. Progressive believers see progressive-believer realities. Having gotten a seminary degree from an evangelical seminary and, being a bookish sort, having read libraries of biblical interpretation ever since, theology as a discipline seems, on the one hand, delightful. I learn so much from so many great writers. Where it goes bad is when a writer or a given tradition regards itself as “the truth.” The whole premise of Stage 4, the journeying, mystical stage, is that God is, shockingly, bigger than we are. It’s a losing game to “master” God or to have any confidence that we know objective truth. It does suggest we should be a little slower to say, “Well, the Bible says…” And perhaps be a little quicker to make it personal: “A passage that’s really meaningful and helpful to me is Matthew 5, particularly the point that talks about being the salt of the earth. Here’s why that so speaks to me.”
But the good news is that knowing Jesus in the centered-set way we talked about last time is entirely do-able, at which point, if we chill out just a little bit about being “right” about things in the Bible, the Bible’s good qualities come back into play for us.
In that spirit, let’s think for a moment about some premises about Bible reading.
So one that seems worth pondering is 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
That seems nothing but true to me! I think one fallacy that might have made that less useful, though, is that my interpretation of a given passage is the God-breathed one. Or that my interpretation is so obvious that it's not really an interpretation at all, that it’s just the clear meaning of the text that any fair-minded person will concede. The Jewish tradition of how the Hebrew scriptures become valuable and alive is the spirit of midrash--that it’s in conversation among educated, fair-minded people that the scriptures come to life--seems like a helpful starting point.
And perhaps you’ve read delightfully iconoclastic takes on the scripture, like Peter Enns’s book The Bible Tells Me So, that bring up entirely new perspectives on how to look at horribly hard scriptures to find anything valuable in, like God commanding the Israelites to commit genocide in the book of Joshua. He points out that the so-called “clear” meaning of the scriptures doesn’t do us much good in such cases. Here is where famous traditions of how the Bible helps us find truth can help us out, like John Wesley’s so-called “quadrilateral,” the four legs of the table of finding God’s truth, as it were:
- Personal experience
- Scripture--which, for him, was read at several levels beyond the very-helpful-on-its-own-terms method that dominates today, called the historical-critical method
- Tradition--which some contemplatives have broadened into what they call “The Perennial Tradition”
- And, for Wesley, coming into adulthood as the enlightenment was really taking over, Reason.
Here’s a fascinating take on another challenging Bible question: My favorite Bible professor in seminary brought up a provocative take on why later generations seem to have clearer vision on some scriptures than earlier generations do--on slavery, for instance. Etc. He encouraged us to think about Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Progressive revelation. It is startling how, in the history of Christian social views, what seems obvious to secular people is often ahead of what seems obvious to church people. Etc.
And maybe you’ve noticed that Jesus himself messes with simplistic takes on the Bible by teaching in parables which, he teaches us in Mark 4, only work as we interact with him, as we live in a richly relational, perhaps contemplative world.Etc.
And, while we’re on the subject of Jesus, it might be worth briefly considering which scriptures he ignored, which he reinterpreted, and which he drove home. So all those challenging scriptures about the conquest of Canaan or the major prophets who are so angry at the people of Israel and so judging of all humanity--nothing from Jesus. Of the, what, 625 commandments in the Old Testament, Jesus I believe only directly quotes two--love God and love your neighbor. Which does seem to say something about how he works with the Bible.
Anyway, with all that in mind, let’s move towards closing with a look at Psalm 1 in this light, which will revisit an observation from a few moments back.
Blessed is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
So a provocative realization is that the Psalmist wasn’t talking about reading the Bible day and night. Their listeners wouldn’t have had a handy paperback Torah to refer to. Etc.
Again, as we continue reading the Bible, it argues that “the law of the Lord” is the Bible, is Jesus--the new lawgiver--and is God’s direct communication by the Holy Spirit given to us by Jesus to let us know everything God says. What would meditating on any or all of those “laws” do for us? Etc.
That’s it for this week’s Journey On podcast! Thanks so much for listening and I’ll look forward to being back together soon.