The Battle for the Bible
In his must-read book, The Soul of America, historian Jon Meacham defines the struggle of our time as “The Battle for Our Better Angels.” I couldn’t agree more.
But followers of Christ are also engaged in a deeper struggle that is nothing less than “The Battle for the Bible.” Or, at least, the battle for a better reading of the Bible.
Let’s face it: the Bible is probably the most respected and least read book in America. The new Museum of the Bible in Washington could be a visual metaphor for the way we honor the bible as a relic of our past while we abuse, distort or ignore it in the present.
The “Self-Help” Bible
A cartoon in The New Yorker depicted a bookstore clerk saying, “The Bible…that would be under self-help.”
Some people tout the Bible as a self-help manual which, if followed carefully, guarantees health, wealth and a great sex life. To be sure, scripture is chuck full of practical guidance the biblical writers call “wisdom.” But it is not general, all-purpose, self-help sort of wisdom. It is wisdom with the purpose of forming lives that are consistent with God’s purpose for us and our world. The guarantee is not success as the world defines it, but holiness.
The Abused Bible
There are also folks who honor the bible without deeply reading or studying it. They are often well-intended, church-going people who think they know what the bible says and attempt to apply it to their lives without practicing the disciplines of thoughtful study and prayerful reflection on what the book actually says.
A sad example is Attorney General Sessions’ innane attempt to justify a brutal immigration policy with a quirky reference to Romans 13, a notoriously difficult passage of scripture which also provided biblical support for slavery in America and the Third Reich in Nazi Germany.
Biblical scholars Richard Hays and Ellen Davis make the point that “reading scripture is a difficult thing to do well…making good sense of the bible and applying that sense wisely to our lives is a hard thing to do.” (The Art of Reading Scripture, p. xv.) But it’s more than worth the effort! They conclude that scripture is “indispensable if we are to view the world realistically and hopefully.” (p. 9)
How to Read the Bible
How do we read the Bible in a way that makes sense to our brains and a difference in our lives? A few suggestions in no particular order.
- Read the Bible in community.
The bible is inherently communal. The Old Testament books emerged out of the life of the Hebrew community. The New Testament books grew out of the life of the early Church. This is the Church’s book and we read it best when we read it in community with other faithful people and within the context of the insights of people in the Body of Christ across the generations. Disciple Bible Study continues to be the best resource I know for this kind of study.
- Read the Bible through Jesus.
The gospel declares that “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14) E. Stanley Jones often reminded us that scripture is “not the revelation of God, for that would be the Word become word, but it is the inspired record of the Revelation–the Revelation was seen in the face of Jesus Christ–the Word became flesh.” (The Word Became Flesh, p. 66,136) We read scripture best when we read it through the lens of the words and way, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
When we run into a difficult passage (of which there are plenty!), a good question to ask is: Does this look like Jesus?
- Read the Bible for transformation.
We read the bible not only for information, but for transformation. James Howell declared that “embodied reading is perhaps the only kind reading that is finally appropriate to these texts, which are about, and are intended to provoke, changed lives.” (The Art of Reading Scripture, p. 100). The bible is the story of ordinary saints and sinners like every one of us whose lives were radically transformed by God’s action in creation, in history, and in the human heart. We read scripture best when we listen for the way the written word can become the living Word in our experience.
We could do worse than to read this old hymn text each time we open the bible.
Master, speak! Thy servant heareth,
Waiting for Thy gracious word,
Longing for Thy voice that cheereth
Master, let it now be heard.
I am list’ning, Lord, for Thee;
What hast Thou to say to me?
Master, speak! and make me ready,
When Thy voice is truly heard,
With obedience glad and steady,
Still to follow every word
I am listening, Lord, for Thee:
Master, speak, oh, speak to me!
Does the Bible really tell me so? Only if I read it!
Grace and peace,