If you’ve read some of my previous blog posts, you’ll know that I struggle with the Church’s relationship to the Bible. Every church I’ve ever been at has this relationship with the Bible where we regularly practice breaking down pieces of it every week (sometimes several times a week) in order to impart some practical wisdom for life.
It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. The Bible isn’t much good to us if it isn’t practical. But I wonder if sometimes, our desire to distill the Bible down to its practical and moral teachings leads us to misunderstand and distort its message.
I mean, what other book do you open up to a random page, grab a selection of 2 or 3 sentences, and then distill it down to a nugget of morality to apply to your life?
How could you possibly do that week after week, grabbing snippets of a text to mine for morality, and still maintain the integrity and meaning of the text? How could you possibly hope to understand the meaning of a book, if you only ever looked at a small grouping of sentences every time you opened it?
Instead, I think we ought to practice reading the Bible more holistically. None of the biblical writers knew they were writing scripture when they wrote it. None of them knew that one day, we’d be taking a sentence or two, scrutinizing it, discovering the “nugget of truth” and applying it to our own lives. They were writing whole works. Paul’s letters were written to be read from start to finish. If you’ve never reflected on the book of Romans as a whole, you can’t expect to really understand what Paul meant by one or two sentences somewhere in the middle of the book.
Sometimes I wonder about what Paul would say when he heard us explaining his letter. Like maybe he might say, “No. That’s not what I meant when I said that. If you’d read my whole letter, rather than dissecting it for a tweet or sermon point, you might recognize that.”
Because the Bible is a collection of witnesses of God’s interaction with and through the Hebrew people over a period of hundreds of years. The biblical writers wrote for many different purposes, and not all of their writings were meant to be prescriptive, even to the original audience.
I’m guilty of this myself. I teach our youth group 2 or 3 times a week, and when you’re trying to teach teenagers practical lessons about the life that God is calling them to live, it becomes difficult not to read the Bible like a series of divine prescriptions. But I think that’s something we have to be on guard for. Because if I teach my youth group students that every passage in the Bible has a practical application for their life if they’ll just read it the right way, I’m teaching my youth group to misread the Bible. I’m teaching them to make the Bible about themselves, rather than about God.
And the Bible isn’t about us. We can learn from it. We can make some applications of morality from its pages. But we shouldn’t read it as though everything in its pages is just God trying to teach Me something.
Instead, we ought to be more reflective in the way we read the Bible. Sometimes I think it would serve us well if we would read texts like Genesis 1, or the poetry of Job, or the book of Revelation to reflect on the power of God and the way he interacts with Creation without feeling the need to break it down into a moral teaching.
Because Christianity is more than just mining truth out of the biblical texts and applying it to your life. And the Bible is more than just a source of morality and practical life tips.
It’s not a self help book, designed to make your life better and more wholesome. It’s a revelation of the person and power of God.
Maybe there are just some scriptures that don’t need to be distilled to a moral point. Maybe some chapters and books just need to be read in their entirety for reflection on the nature of God.
Maybe we don’t need to walk away from every passage in the Bible going “And this is how this passage should change the way you live your life.”
I’ve heard it said that if you go into a situation looking for something, you’ll find it, whether it’s there or not.
Maybe that’s true about scripture. If you go into each passage looking for a nugget, you’ll find one – even if it’s completely fabricated.
If you expect every Old Testament story to include a moral for your own life, you’ll find a practical moral. If you expect every aspect of every parable Jesus tells to be analogous to some deep spiritual truth, you’ll probably uncover something. If you expect that the book of Revelation is a road map to the end of the world, you’ll find parallels to real world events.
Even if none of that is actually there to be found.
Because, other than the actual book of Proverbs, the Bible isn’t a collection of moral proverbs and analogies waiting to be dissected.
Which isn’t to say that we should never seek to derive a moral from the stories. I think it’s appropriate to study to understand why the biblical writers would have included the stories that they did, what those stories would have meant to their original audience, and what those stories might suggest about what it means to be a faithful follower of God. But we ought to be careful that we don’t turn the Bible into a series of divine life hacks.
I understand the impulse. The Bible has been the primary source of information about God since it was compiled 1700 years ago. Of course we would want to study, dissect, and better understand what it’s saying. And, if done properly, that’s appropriate. In-depth studies of the text help us to understand the text better.
But somewhere along the way, I’m afraid what we’ve done is replaced these unified texts in the Bible with a collection of fragmented moral teachings. In our desire to be better people and better followers of God, we may have lost the actual power and meaning of the text.
So what I think the Church ought to do is try and reclaim those reflective reading practices. What if instead of having every Sunday and Wednesday be about finding the next piece of practical morality we can apply to our lives, we left some sermons and worship services open to just the reading of the text? What if instead of reading the Bible for more practical tips for life, we read the Bible to experience the power of God and the awe of the Hebrew people in their interactions with him? What if instead of looking for new and interesting nuggets of truth in a text, we allowed ourselves to experience what the biblical writers wanted their audiences to experience?
I think that the Bible might become even more powerful and significant to us. We might find God by looking at the whole of the text in ways that we just can’t when we only look at the parts. By reading the Bible holistically, we allow God to reveal himself to us. And our experience with the God in the text of the Bible will change us.
Because the Bible isn’t a series of moral teachings. It’s a testimony to the presence and power of God among God’s creation. And that God will change us. That God will give us a new way to live. But it won’t be through our exegetical prowess. It won’t be because we found the hidden moral in every passage of scripture. It will be because the Holy Spirit works in us the same way it did in the writers of the biblical text.
May we read the Bible holistically. May we discover God in its pages, and see that same God working in our own lives. And may we trust that God to do his good work in us.