I came to faith reading the Bible, 35 years ago. I read it every morning (right now I’m reading through Luke) and I read it again every night as I’m going to bed (at night I’m reading and praying through the Psalms). As I read and study it, I hear God speaking to me. It represents my deepest hopes and my highest aspirations. Its words are the defining story of my life. Yet at times I wrestle with it.
The scriptures I wrestle with are not related to things I am tempted to do, or things I wish were not in the scripture because they cramp my style. I’m grateful for these passages; they serve to convict and challenge me. The passages I wrestle with are those that seem inconsistent with the character of God revealed by Jesus Christ or which seem to reflect ancient cultural norms more than the kingdom he proclaimed. Examples include genocide commanded by God, the death penalty for picking up sticks on the Sabbath, God’s apparent acceptance of slavery and the beating of one’s slaves with rods, the subordination of women found in a variety of scriptures, and the attributing to God things we can today explain scientifically, just to name a few.
When I first became a Christian I had a pretty simplistic view of the Bible. I viewed the Bible in many ways like Muslims view the Quran, as if God had dictated everything in it. I did not understand the historical, cultural, and theological context of the biblical authors. I did not appreciate the fact that God was using real people with their own personalities, vocabularies, moral and theological convictions.
The Bible is both a human and divine book. Through it God has spoken and continues to speak. Yet he used human authors, and their personalities, passions, and perspectives are also reflected in the text. This Bible is not simply the “word of God.” It is also the words, prayers, and reflections of people living in specific times and places addressing the issues they were facing two and three thousand years ago. This makes the Bible a bit more complex than simply saying, “God says it, I believe it, that settles it.”
In addition, the process of how the books were chosen to be included as scripture is fascinatingly complex. While nearly all of our New Testament documents were written in the first century, the church would wrestle with which of these books should be in our New Testament, and why, for 300 years before Athanasius and later the Synod at Carthage codified what we know of today as our New Testament.
It is precisely in the Bible’s complexity that we find the room to wrestle with its texts. Some criticize those who wrestle with the Bible, who suggest that there may be things taught in the Bible that reflect the culture and times in which it was written more than they reflect the heart, character and will of God. They will say that these persons are “picking and choosing” what in the Bible they will follow. To the degree that “picking and choosing” means picking passages that you like and holding onto them, and choosing to set aside passages that are merely inconvenient or not to your personal liking, I agree, this is problematic. But I’d suggest that what some criticize as “picking and choosing” is better called biblical interpretation.
We all “pick and choose.” Women, do you pray with your head covered as Paul commands in I Corinthians 11:5-6? If not, why not? Guys, are you saving for retirement? Why do you do this when Jesus tell us, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth”? Do you cancel the debts of all who owe you money every seven years as Deuteronomy 15:1 teaches? Do you refrain from all work on the Sabbath? My point in mentioning these is that we’re all constantly interpreting scripture, deciding how literally we must adhere to it, or asking how it applies to us today. Or, if you prefer, we’re “picking and choosing.”
A.J. Jacobs spent a year trying to “live biblically.” He followed, as closely as he could, the entire Law of Moses. At the end of the year he noted that it was literally impossible to obey every command of the Law. He also said that everyone picks and chooses. Then he said something I really love, “The important thing is picking and choosing the right things.”
I’ve just scratched the surface of the question of what the Bible is and how we read it in this and my previous post. These, and many others, are the questions I seek to address in my new book, Making Sense of the Bible. Of the book Tony Campolo wrote, “When I think about how many people have been turned off to the Christian faith because of how they mis-read and mis-understand the Bible, I can only say, ‘Thank you Jesus for this book!’ It’s going to help a lot of people.” That’s precisely why I wrote it.
To read what others have said, and the first two chapters of the book, click on this link.
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