Five Simple Hacks to Revolutionize Your Bible Reading

You don’t have to be a Bible scholar to get more out of your Bible reading. Ideally, sure, we’d all be reading the Bible in ancient Hebrew and Aramaic and Greek with a full understanding of the relevant ancient cultures—but we all know that’s not going to happen. So, here are a few tricks of the trade—a few “Bible reading hacks”—to help you maximize your English Bible reading. Beware, though, you might find this actually revolutionizes your Bible reading—and radicalizes your faith in Jesus and his way of love.

Read “Jesus” as “Jesus of Nazareth.”

We as Christians tend to think about Jesus in generic sorts of ways, or we domesticate Jesus so he fits better with who we already are. Reading “Jesus” in the New Testament as “Jesus of Nazareth” reminds us that it’s not just some generic Jesus whom we trust and obey, but a very specific Jesus: a first-century Jew from rural Galilee who lived in certain ways and taught certain things and, as a result, was rejected by many of his religious leaders as a blasphemer and executed by the Roman Empire as an enemy of the state. See here for some direct biblical reminders of Jesus as a man from Nazareth.

Read “Christ” as “Messiah.”

Most Christians probably know that “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name, but a title: it is the equivalent of “Messiah.” There were a few different messianic expectations among Jews in the first century, but the most common—and the one behind the New Testament word “Christ”—was the expectation of a king in the family line of ancient Israel’s King David, who would arise and bring about God’s reign of justice and peace on earth. See here for a few of these kingdom expectations. Confessing Jesus as “Christ” means claiming these expectations are being fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth.

Read “kingdom of God” as “God’s reign of justice and peace and life”—and read “salvation” the same way.

We might tend to think of the “kingdom of God” as equivalent to “heaven,” by which we mean “an eternal, spiritual future of perfection and bliss.” This can be especially so when we read Matthew’s preferred phrase, “kingdom of heaven.” However, this is not what language of “God as king” or “God’s kingdom” meant for Jews in Jesus’ day.

The “kingdom of God” is about God’s reign as rightful ruler over all creation, bringing justice and peace for all people and flourishing life for all things. It is closely tied to biblical language of “salvation”: God’s reign brings deliverance from evil powers that oppress us (economic, political, spiritual, and more), and a restoration to freedom and full, flourishing life. “Eternal life”? That’s “the life of the coming age”: life under God’s reign, experiencing God’s “salvation” even now, in this age. Notice the way this language is all connected in this passage, for example.

God’s kingdom is “of heaven”—originating in God’s holy presence and reflecting God’s righteous character—and so it is “not of this world”—the very opposite of the power-hungry, violent empires we have known in human history. But in Messiah Jesus of Nazareth this reign of God “has come near,” and one day it will fully come about “on earth as it is in heaven.” This is the fullness of “salvation” for which we all yearn, deep in our bones.

Read “faith” as “devotion” or even “allegiance.”

The biblical language of “faith” is much more than just “believing the right things about the right things.” In fact, James describes that kind of “faith” on its own as “dead,” “barren,” “unable to save.” Yet this is often what Christians mean by “faith.”

In the Bible the language of “faith” and “believing” is much more personal than propositional. It’s primarily about trusting in God through all things, being devoted to God in all ways. It is really about allegiance: “faith” is a commitment to God and God’s ways as revealed in Jesus. Reading “faith” language as “devotion” or even “allegiance” reminds us of the radical nature of Christian faith.

Read “love” as “Jesus’ way of love.”

“Love” is another of those words that can mean a lot of different things for us. But in the New Testament the “love” we are to aspire to has a very specific association with Jesus. It is “love in the way of Jesus,” which includes things like breaking bread with “sinners” and other outcasts, welcoming “strangers,” blessing “enemies,” forgiving those who sin against us, caring for “the least” in society, bringing good news to the poor, freely healing the sick, warning powerful oppressors, and liberating people from evil forces that coerce and constrain them. In other words, “love” is how we live into God’s reign of justice and peace and life.

Next time you’re reading the New Testament, give these “Bible reading hacks” a try. Just remember my warning: if you take this Bible reading seriously, you might find yourself on the same path as Jesus, loving outcasts and walking with the oppressed and being crucified by the powers-that-be. The good news? There’s a resurrection on the other side. This is the narrow path leads to true life, for you and for all.

“The Bible is Clear”: No, It’s Not—But That’s Okay

“The Bible clearly says…”

I’ve heard this many, many times over the years, always spoken with great fervour. I’ve even been known to say something like this myself a time or two.

So I get it, I really do.

You read a passage in the Bible, and it just makes sense. It fits with what you already know to be true. It might add to your knowledge, it might explain or expand your knowledge, but still it fits well with what you already know. It’s what anyone with an ounce of common sense would understand the passage to mean. It’s plain. It’s clear.

But there are at least two problems with this. And they’re rather large problems.

First, you’re likely reading the Bible in English. Or maybe German, or Korean, or some other reading language that’s comfortable for you. But the Bible wasn’t originally written in English or any other modern language. The Bible is a collection of ancient writings, first written in ancient languages: the Old Testament in Hebrew and smatterings of Aramaic, and the New Testament in Greek. These writings—or “books” of the Bible, as they are conventionally called—were written over many centuries and from within several ancient cultures. And they were each written—and then often edited, sometimes repeatedly—within very specific historical communities, for very specific historical purposes.

In other words, unless you’re reading Paul’s letter to the Romans, say, in Koine Greek, and you’re fluent in the language, and you’re familiar with the particular circumstances surrounding the letter, and you’ve got a good grasp of Paul’s and the Roman Christians’ specific cultural settings, you can’t really claim that anything in the book of Romans is “clear” to you. You’re reading someone else’s translation of an ancient text, with all of that depth of nuance flattened into a modern English version that makes some superficial “sense” to you in your setting today.

That’s one problem with claiming that “the Bible is clear” in this or that passage. Here’s another: someone else can read that very same passage with the same depth of devotion and the same careful, prayerful attention—the same ounce of common sense, even—and come to a very different reading of the passage that is just as obvious to them, just as plain, just as clear.

Exhibit A: the many churches and denominations that have been created out of divisions because what was so very clear to one group about this biblical passage or that biblical idea was not at all clear to another group (*cough* Mennonite history *cough*).

Exhibit B: the many times the vast majority of Christians have been convinced this or that was the clear teaching of the Bible, only to conveniently forget within a few generations that Christians had actually believed such foolishness (Gentile conversion to Judaism, a geocentric universe, the Crusades, the Inquisition, White superiority, Indigenous genocide, African slavery, women’s subordination…).

There have been, and still are, many competing claims of what “the Bible clearly says.” This is what Christian Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” and it is the death knell of any claim to possess “the clear teaching of the Bible.”

No, the Bible is not “clear.” And if you’re one of those people who needs to have a prooftext, here’s a clip from 2 Peter 3:15-16:

…ὁ ἀγαπητὸς ἡμῶν ἀδελφὸς Παῦλος κατὰ τὴν δοθεῖσαν αὐτῷ σοφίαν ἔγραψεν ὑμῖν, ὡς καὶ ἐν πάσαις ταῖς ἐπιστολαῖς λαλῶν ἐν αὐταῖς περὶ τούτων, ἐν αἷς ἐστιν δυσνόητά τινα…

So, what do we do?

Well, I suppose you could close your browser, turn off your computer, pretend you never read this post, and go back to your comfortable Christian life. Or, you could go all in and start splitting churches and burning heretics until you’re the only one left who believes The Truth about The Things. Or, you could chuck out your entire faith because it’s built on a “Bible” that doesn’t exist.

Needless to say (which means “I feel I must say”), these are not my recommended options. Here are a few things I would recommend.

First, read the Bible with humility. Recognize that you are reading the Bible without a full grasp of the linguistic nuances and historical details and cultural subtleties. Acknowledge that other people might be just as sincere as you in their desire to hear and obey God’s voice. Admit that you might even be wrong about this or that biblical passage.

Second, read the Bible in multiple translations. I’m assuming (perhaps naively) that most people are not going to become experts in ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Find a good modern translation that you feel comfortable reading and use that for your regular Bible reading. God can use that reading to shape you in the way of Jesus.

But if you’re going to go beyond devotional reading into teaching or preaching, helping a community of faith to discern God’s will together, then at least read from multiple versions. This will give you some sense of the nuances (and difficulties in translation) of the ancient texts. If you really want to get serious, then do some work also in trying to understand the cultural setting and historical circumstances of the specific biblical writing you are reading. Good commentaries and Bible reference works are the tools you need here.

Third, read the Bible in community. This is really, really important. It exposes our own blind spots in reading the Bible. It opens up ways of reading the Bible that we would never have discovered on our own. It helps keep us humble. It helps us better discern truth.

This reading the Bible in community can—and probably should—be done in a few different ways. The most important is reading the Bible within a real, flesh-and-blood community of people. Read the Bible together, think about it together, talk about it together, wrestle with it together. But there are other ways of reading the Bible in community, other kinds of “community” that are important: authors who write on the Bible, speakers who speak on the Bible, from a variety of faith (or non-faith) traditions, from a diversity of social backgrounds, from around the globe and throughout history.

Finally, read the Bible charitably. I mean this in at least two ways. We should read the Bible with charity toward the biblical authors. They were writing for a different time, in a different world. Yet we hold much in common with them, not least the desire to know and be known by our common Creator. Be charitable toward the biblical authors, then, working hard to understand the spirit/Spirit that has motivated and animated their writing.

Even more importantly, though, we should read the Bible with charity toward others. The Bible has been used in a lot of harmful ways throughout Christian history. Splitting hairs over Bible verses has led to splitting churches. Self-righteously claiming The Truth about The Things in the Bible—and combining this with brute power—has led to burning heretics. Christians have a long history of excluding whole classes of people, enslaving whole groups of people, justifying the destruction of whole societies of people, based on the “clear teaching” of the Bible.

Instead, Jesus models for us a hermeneutic of love: reading the Scriptures to bring liberation, reconciliation, justice, and human flourishing. In our Bible reading we need to heed Jesus’ call to “go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’” and this sometimes means saying, “You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.”

Then, if nothing else, we can at least become clear about this: that the entire message of the Bible is summed up in one word, “love.”

The Bible is clear: God endorses slavery.

There are at least seven passages in the Bible where God is depicted as directly permitting or endorsing slavery. Two of these are in the Law of Moses: God permitted the Israelites to take slaves from conquered peoples permanently, and the Israelites could sell themselves into slavery temporarily to pay off debts (Exod 21:2-11; Lev 25:44-46). The other five passages are in the New Testament, where slavery as a social institution is endorsed and slaves are called to obey their masters “in everything” (Eph 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; 1 Tim 6:1-2; Tit 2:9-10; 1 Pet 2:18-20).

But slavery is viewed positively in Scripture well beyond these commands. Owning slaves was seen as a sign of God’s blessing (Gen 12:16; 24:35; Isa 14:1-2), and there are literally dozens of passages in the Bible that speak of slavery in passing, without comment. Slavery was simply part of life, and most people saw it as just the way things always were, even the divinely ordained order of things.

slaveAnd yes, in case there is any doubt, this was real slavery: “the slave is the owner’s property” (Exod 21:21). Both Old and New Testaments called for better treatment of slaves than many of the peoples around them, and the Law of Moses in particular called for better treatment of fellow Israelites as slaves. But slaves could be beaten (Exod 21:20-21; 1 Pet 2:18-20), and slaves could be taken as concubines (Gen 16:3-4; Exod 21:8-11) or even raped without serious consequence (Lev 19:20-22).

These passages are all pretty straightforward. One could even say that the Bible is clear on this: the institution of slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing. This has in fact been the Christian view through history: it’s only in the last 150-200 years that the tide of Christian opinion has shifted on slavery.

So why do Christians today believe slavery is wrong? Why don’t we believe “slavery is permitted by God, endorsed by God, and owning slaves can even be a sign of God’s blessing,” even though the Bible is pretty clear on this?

Well, there are two main reasons, it seems to me.

The first reason is simply that our society has shifted on this. The reasons for this are complex, but in basic terms this shift has happened because 1) a vocal minority first called for the abolition of slavery, which 2) eventually prompted governments to enact legislation abolishing slavery, and 3) the simple passage of time has normalized this disapproval of slavery among us as a western society.*

It is instructive to read arguments back and forth between Christians on African slavery during the 19th century. Christians in support of slavery—mostly powerful white landowners—pointed to all the biblical texts I’ve outlined above, along with things they saw in the Bible that supported the inferiority of Africans in particular.

But a segment of Christians—former slaves and white activists—joined others in opposing slavery. These Christians emphasized biblical teachings like “love of neighbour” and the Golden Rule and all people created in God’s image and “there is no longer slave or free in Christ.” It took decades of arguing their case, often being shamed and vilified by opposing Christians—the dispute even touched off a bloody civil war—but eventually their view won out.

The passage of laws legalized their view, and the passage of time has normalized their view. We no longer worry about the social instability that abolishing slavery might cause, nor are we concerned that somehow we’re being unfaithful to God by not following the biblical teachings on slavery.

This points to the second main reason Christians today believe slavery is wrong in spite of the clear biblical passages that permit or endorse slavery: we have developed a different hermeneutic, a different way of reading the biblical texts on slavery.

The early Christian abolitionists paved the way. Rather than emphasizing the specific Bible passages that directly approve of slavery, they looked at other biblical texts and themes that they saw as more big-picture, more transcultural and timeless: the creation of humanity in the “image of God,” the “liberation” and “redemption” themes of the Exodus, the love teachings of Jesus, and the salvation vision of Paul. That is, they set the stage for a way of reading the Bible that was not grounded in specific texts of Scripture, but in a trajectory of “Exodus to New Exodus centred on Christ,” or “Creation to New Creation centred on Christ”—a larger biblical narrative with Jesus at its heart.

And so when Christians today read the slavery passages in the Bible, this is what we do. “Sure,” we’ll say, “the Bible says this here—but we know from Genesis 1 that all people are created in God’s image, and we know from Galatians 3 that there is no longer slave or free in Christ, and don’t forget about God redeeming Israel from slavery and Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbour as ourselves.”

In other words, we no longer take the slavery-approval passages as direct and straightforward teaching for all times and places. Rather we take these as instances of the way things were done in the past but not the way God really wants things to be. They are descriptive of what once was; they are not prescriptive of what is to be.

So the next time we hear someone talk about the “clear teaching of Scripture” on women’s roles, or saying that “the Bible is clear” on homosexuality, or whatever the topic might be, think about this: the Bible is at least as clear on slavery, yet thank God we no longer believe that slavery is God’s will. We’ve read the Bible, and we’re following Jesus.

————————————-

* I’m well aware that slavery still exists in the world, but I don’t know of any Christians who approve of it. Maybe that’s just because I don’t hang out with those Christians. I’m also well aware that the abolition of slavery has not brought about full freedom and equality and justice for people of African descent in the western world. My focus here is on the institution of slavery itself, but that’s just one side of the coin: racism, both personal and institutional, is the other, and is still ongoing. See also my comments below, in particular on whether recent western slavery was radically different in kind than ancient Greco-Roman slavery.

“Read it Again—This Time with Imagination!”

Have you read 1 Corinthians 10 recently? I mean, really read it? Because there are some pretty odd things going on there.

In the passage Paul refers to several stories in ancient Israel’s history, stories we find in our Old Testament books of Exodus and Numbers. Most of us probably know these stories.

There’s the story of Israel’s exodus, being freed from slavery in Egypt. There’s the story of Israel crossing the Red Sea. There are the stories of Israel wandering in the wilderness, receiving manna from the skies and water from a rock. And there are the stories of Israel grumbling and complaining, rejecting God and worshiping other gods.

There are at least half a dozen different Old Testament stories about Israel that Paul alludes to here in 1 Corinthians 10. That’s not what’s odd. What’s odd are things like this:

  • Paul says the Israelites were “baptized into Moses” when they went through the Red Sea under the pillar of cloud.
  • Paul says that the manna that fell from the sky was not merely some kind of bread, but it was “spiritual food.”
  • And the rock they got the water from? That rock, Paul says, was actually Jesus. Christ was a “spiritual rock” that “followed them” everywhere they went, and he provided “spiritual drink” for them, not merely H2O.

None of this is actually found in any of the stories in Exodus or Numbers. Rather, Paul is reading these things into the biblical stories.

In other words, Paul is using a pretty hefty dose of imagination in reading his Bible.

Paul is imagining Jesus always present in the background of the Bible—even those passages that don’t say anything about Jesus. And Paul is imagining the church as the intended audience of the Bible, even being in the biblical stories as if they were there—even though the stories were written for people long since gone.

What Paul does in this passage might seem really strange. In fact, I wouldn’t stretch the text of Scripture quite as far as Paul does, or in exactly the same ways (hey, he’s an apostle). But Paul’s example of using his imagination to read the Bible is still a helpful model for us today, in three particular ways.

First, when we read the Bible we should imagine Jesus as its fulfilment.

I don’t think we should try and see Jesus behind every rock or prophecy in the Old Testament. But we should imagine how Jesus relates to everything we read.

For example, try reading the biblical stories and imagining Jesus among those who were oppressed, who suffered and were killed—not among the strong conquerors. That is, in fact, the story of Jesus, that he identified with the weak and the suffering, not the powerful and successful. And if we use our imaginations in this way, suddenly new stories might pop out at us in fresh ways.

We might see Jesus in the life of Ruth, the Moabite woman trying to find her way in a patriarchal Israelite world. We might see Jesus in the life of Mephibosheth, the disabled grandson of King Saul, and in the way King David treated him with surprising mercy and compassion. We might see Jesus in the life of Jeremiah, the prophet who spoke truth to power and in so doing endured ostracism and imprisonment.

Here’s a second idea: When we read the Bible we should imagine ourselves in the story.

We should use our imaginations when we read the stories of the Bible, and put ourselves in the sandals of each character in the story, whether “good” or “bad,” big or small.

Jesus’ stories are particularly good for imagining ourselves in them as different characters. In fact, he invites us to do this imagining.

The Good Samaritan - Ferdinand HodlerYou know the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10: the Jew robbed on the way to Jericho, the priest and then the Levite passing him by, the despised Samaritan stopping to help him. As Luke tells the story, Jesus invites his hearers to use their imagination: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who was robbed?”

Put yourself in each of their sandals, Jesus says. Imagine yourself in their place. Which one was the true neighbour?

And you can almost feel the struggle in his Jewish listeners, afraid to put themselves in the sandals of a Samaritan, then being forced to admit that their scorned enemy was in fact a loving neighbour.

This is what we need to do, if we really want God to speak directly to our hearts through the Bible. We need to imagine ourselves in the story, even when it challenges our preconceptions, even when it hurts our ego.

A third suggestion: When we read the Bible we should imagine how its message can be lived out in our lives.

Jesus doesn’t end the story of the Good Samaritan by simply getting the right identification of the hero from his audience. He ends the story with these words: “Now go and do likewise.”

Go and do likewise.

Not, “Go and repeat exactly the same thing.” Not, “Go and find someone who was robbed and beaten and then bind up their wounds and take them to a safe place to heal”—though, of course, that’s not a bad thing!

No, it’s “Go and do likewise (homoiōs), do similar kinds of things.” Follow this example of mercy shown to a neighbour, a stranger, a foreigner, an enemy, the “other.” But there may be a billion different ways this same neighbour-love can be shown. It depends on our context, the needs around us, where we are at in our own story. And so this requires some imagination.

1 Corinthians 10 gives us a window into how the Apostle Paul and the other early Christians read their Bibles—loaded with imagination. We’re invited to do the very same thing when we read our Bibles.

Where is Jesus in the biblical story? Is he right there, front and centre, like in the Gospels? Or is he in the background, where we can just see the contours of his character? Does the story prompt a question that Jesus answers, or pose a problem that Jesus solves? How does what we see in the story relate to the way Jesus lived his life, the things he taught?

Where do we fit in the biblical story? Are we one of the “good guys” or one of the “bad guys”? (Don’t presume to know the answer!) Are we up among the powerful and privileged in the story, or down among the weak and lowly? Are we one of the insiders, or one of the outsiders? What is God saying to us, whichever role we find ourselves in at this particular time?

How does the biblical story fulfilled in Jesus intersect with our life? What encouragement does it give us? How does it challenge the way we think, the way we live? How can we “go and do likewise” in following Jesus in the particular circumstances of our lives?

Where is Jesus? Where are we? And how do we then live? May God stir our imaginations to answer these questions as we read the Scriptures, both on our own and together as God’s people.

Images: James Tissot, “Moses Strikes the Rock”; Ferdinand Hodler, “The Good Samaritan.” This post is adapted from a sermon preached at Morden Mennonite on September 18, 2016, as part of a series called “Stirring Our Imagination.” For more suggestions on how to read the Bible, check out my post on “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?”

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

What Did Og Ever Do to You?

The Lord struck down many nations
and killed mighty kings—
Sihon, king of the Amorites,
and Og, king of Bashan,
and all the kingdoms of Canaan—
and gave their land as a heritage,
a heritage to his people Israel.

This was part of our morning prayers this week, this snippet from Psalm 135. It’s a psalm of praise to God, declaring the worship-worthiness of Yahweh. Yahweh is good and gracious! Yahweh is great and powerful! Yahweh’s goodness and greatness are shown in his awesome deeds!

Awesome deeds like killing Egypt’s firstborn, destroying nations and annihilating peoples, and slaying kings like Og, king of Bashan.

Yep.

Og's Bed

Og’s bed

And what did Og do to deserve such a fate? Simply this: he stood up on behalf of his people against an invading army, which just happened to be the army of ancient Israel, who just happened to be Yahweh’s tribe. And so, the original story goes, the Israelites “killed him, his sons, and all his people, until there was no survivor left; and they took possession of his land” (Num 21:33-35).

Ugh.

Not my favourite way to reflect on God’s gracious goodness. And not my favourite way to prompt prayer and worship on a bleary-eyed morning.

But yet I read it. And I reflected on it. And I prayed to God based on it. How in the world could I do that?

I’ve offered many thoughts already on this blog about how we as Christians should read the Bible, including the Old Testament. In general terms it boils down to this: the Bible points us to Jesus, and we follow Jesus.

That’s all well and good, and I’m convinced it is the right way for us as Christians to think about the Bible and how this collection of God-inspired, ancient human writings should function as authoritative Scripture for us.

But how do we then read specific passages, especially passages that make us go “ugh”?

What do we do with Og?

Well, here’s what I do with these biblical passages, and what I did Tuesday morning when the psalmist’s Schadenfreude over Og’s fate zapped me out of my comfortable morning fog.

First, I recognize these stories and songs for what they are: reflections of an ancient tribal culture with its contexts of tribal gods, tribal enemies, and tribal warfare. For me, this doesn’t in any way negate the divine inspiration of these texts—it certainly affects my understanding of how the inspiration of Scripture works, but not that the biblical texts are divinely inspired. I’ve written on this elsewhere, so I won’t belabour the point here: any notion we have of Scripture’s inspiration must take into account the simple realities of what these ancient writings are.

And what we have here is stark tribalism at work. Us versus them. Our god versus their gods. We win, they lose. Our god is greater than their gods. Yay for us! All praise to our god!

Sounds pretty pathetic when I put it just like that. Yet that’s the logic at work here, and we do ourselves no favours when we try to ignore it or deny it.

And it would be pathetic—and tragic—if we stopped there. But we’re not done yet.

I then read these stories and songs through the lens of other Scripture, especially later Scripture, especially the New Testament, and most especially Jesus. Throughout the Bible you have strong hints that this kind of tribalistic perspective is not really the best perspective to have, that it’s not really what God is looking for.

From the creation narratives pointing through Israel to all humanity, to stories of non-Israelites playing key roles in God’s work in the world, to the Hebrew prophets pointing beyond Israel’s present to God’s wider work among the nations—the Old Testament itself deconstructs its own tribalism.

This trajectory continues in the New Testament, centred on Jesus: through Jesus, Israel’s Messiah, God’s kingdom comes on earth for all peoples. The tribes of the earth become reflections of delightful diversity, not reasons for death and destruction.

All this points to a re-thinking of our “enemies.” Human, flesh-and-blood “enemies” are not our true enemies after all. Rather, humanity is united against a common enemy: our own sin and its resulting death. Og is not the problem. We’re the problem: our recycled attitudes and actions of harm against ourselves, others, our world, and ultimately God.

God's Bed

God’s bed

And all this points to a re-thinking of “God.” God is not like us only bigger. God doesn’t mirror our prejudices and dogmas. God doesn’t happen to hate all the people we hate. God loves the world—all of us, every tribe, every nation, every person. Even Og. And God comes to lift us out of our sin and death, to lift us out of our cycles of violence and harm, not through ever-greater displays of power and force but through ever-deeper expressions of selfless love.

Finally, I pray these stories and songs in this re-thought way, and seek to live in light of God’s fuller revelation of himself in Jesus. As I prayed this clip of Psalm 135 this week, in my mind I was converting the words about flesh-and-blood enemies into words about humanity’s real enemies. I read “Sihon and Og” but thought “Sin and Death.”

God has looked past our tribalism to our humanity, and through the crucified and risen Jesus God conquers our cruelty, our deceit, our prejudice, and more. God is greater than our fears! God is mightier than our hatred! Yay for all of us! All praise to our Creator God!

But this, of course, is not all, these joyful praises in private prayer. As I left our morning prayers Tuesday morning, my thoughts lingered in that space.

How do we continue to perpetuate that ancient tribalistic mindset? (Us versus them, our god versus their gods, we win, they lose, our god is greater than their gods.)

How do we do that as groups of people? (Mennonites, Christians, Straight-White-Males, Canada, The West.)

How do I do that in my everyday life? (My rights, my privileges, my little kingdom, mine, mine, mine.)

Ugh.

It was so much easier to just blame Og.

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

Can We Read the Bible Devotionally? Should We Even Try?

I received an email from a church member last night. In it he asks a question that I’ve received in different forms many times in my career as a professor and pastor, so I thought it would be worth posting his question and my response here.

van Gogh - BibleHis question was prompted by comments I had made that every single statement in the Bible is “culture-bound,” that even the most seemingly straightforward assertions or commands in Scripture are part of a complex weave of ancient cultural and literary realities. This means, then, that if we really want to understand what these biblical statements are all about we need to read them, as best as we can, in light of their ancient setting.

Here’s his question:

If absolutely none of the Bible’s commands can be taken at face value, but must be interpreted after major study, the same must apply to promises in the Bible. How can one then read the Bible “devotionally,” claiming and being encouraged by promises, without a major study to make sure of the promises’ meanings, since it is unlikely they mean what they appear on the surface to mean – just like the commands we read in the Bible?

And here’s how I responded, edited slightly for the blog (the smiley-face is original):

Let me try to give an analogy here. The earth spins on its axis and revolves around the sun. Those are basic scientific facts. However, they’re easy to ignore or deny: from our personal perspective it sure doesn’t feel like we’re spinning or moving, and it sure looks like the sun turns around the earth. And in our everyday lives the true facts seem to make very little difference: we go through the seasons, we watch the sun rise, enjoy the sun during the day (or hope it comes out!), and watch the sun set. We even speak in our everyday language about “sunrise” and “sunset,” as if the sun actually goes around the earth.

However, there are moments in our everyday lives, and more significant moments in our collective life as human societies, where we need to make sure we pay attention to those facts. When we want to know the weather forecast, we sure hope the meteorologist has worked with accurate models that include those basic facts of earth’s rotation and revolution. When we want to know what’s going on with climate change, we sure hope the climatologists have considered the implications of the basic realities of the earth’s rotation on its axis and revolution around the sun. And these basic facts have many other implications, from launching the satellites that we now all rely on for our GPS and cell phones, to charting the flight paths of the airplanes we fly on, and more.

Appreciating the basic fact of the antiquity of Scripture is kind of like that. It is a basic fact, there’s no way of getting around it. When we pick up our English Bible and read it and it seems to make sense, it can be easy to ignore or deny the fact of Scripture’s “ancientness.” But that’s ironic: we only have the luxury of sitting down with our English Bibles because a team of scholars has spent years to produce that translation from an ancient text in ancient languages, with that text being reconstructed by other teams of scholars who have spent years comparing ancient manuscripts to come up with the most likely original reading of the text. It’s a fact: the biblical writings are ancient human writings. And that must be taken into account in how we read them.

I have no problem with devotional readings of Scripture, however – I encourage it, in fact. That’s much like everyday people enjoying the sunshine, speaking of “sunrise” and “sunset” without giving much thought to whether their words are really accurate. God can speak through our own private – even inaccurate! – readings of Scripture. Hey, if God can speak through Balaam and his donkey, God can speak through anything – even if that’s not God’s ideal way to speak. So I’m all for people reading their Bibles, hearing God encouraging them or challenging them to greater faith and hope and love, even if they are badly misreading that promise that was actually a covenant promise for ancient Israel in exile (e.g. Jer 29:11), or whatever.

However, there are times when it is very important that we make sure we take into account the basic fact of Scripture’s “ancientness,” because we want to be as sure as possible that we are getting the right interpretation of a particular passage. It’s one thing for someone to be personally challenged to faith, hope, or love by their private reading of their English translation of the Bible. It’s quite another thing for them to take that private reading and impose it on others, or to make it the basis for the faith and practice of their congregation or conference, especially if that reading of Scripture is going to in some way constrain the faith and practice of others. At that point, we need to say, “Hold on – this is important. Let’s go back to the text together and read it in context.”

At least, that’s how I see it. 🙂

For more on these ideas, check out my post on “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.